March 30, 2014

Total Domination

This weekend in Miami we were treated to a rare occurrence at the Sony Open -- in both the men's and women's draws, the world #1's and #2's had survived the tough, first-rate fields to make championship weekend. And while all did not go as we might have expected -- or hoped, in some cases, I'm sure -- the ultimate winners both earned their trophies with some spectacular performances, wholly overpowering opponents who seemed caught slightly off-guard when it mattered most.

Serena Williams had already claimed the crown here six times before, and though she suffered a mild hiccup against world #74 Caroline Garcia in her third round, was the clear favorite in Saturday's final. Australian Open champ Na Li, who'd three times been stopped in the quarters here, had been pushed to the limit by Dominika Cibulkova in the semis -- a match in which she actually won fewer points than the Melbourne runner-up. It'd also been almost six years since her only win over Serena, and she'd only taken one set off the American in their last nine meetings.

Still, Li came out swinging on Saturday, taking advantage of a sluggish start from the American -- she broke Williams' first service game and built a 5-2 lead in relatively short order. But Serena, as she often does, upped her game when she needed too. She foiled Li's two attempts to close out the set and after more than one-and-a-quarter hours of play -- longer than her entire quarterfinal against Angelique Kerber -- somehow took the first for herself. She didn't let up in the second, either -- she upped her service game, never allowing a break opportunity this time, and pounced during her return games. In a much shorter set, Serena only barely let Li to get on the board, putting together a run of eleven games in twelve to cap off the match and secure her record seventh title in Miami, making this the winning-est venue in her career -- quite a feat for someone with nearly sixty titles to her name.

Novak Djokovic hasn't reached that milestone just yet, but after nailing down trophy number four in Miami earlier today, he may be well on his way. The world #2 had an easy trip to the final here, getting walkovers in both his third and semifinal rounds. Still, coming off a crown at the BNP Paribas Open, he was going after the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double -- for a second time, something only Roger Federer had ever been able to do. Nole did have some things going for him though -- since the U.S. Open, he'd only lost two matches and had put together a 19-0 record at Masters events. And having narrowed his head-to-head record against world #1 Rafael Nadal over the last several months, he had to have confidence on his side as well.

Nadal, for his part, certainly had some advantages himself. Three-times a runner-up at one of the few Masters events he hasn't won, he'd seemed to have bounced back well from an early Indian Wells exit and with three easy wins to kick off his Miami campaign -- plus a walkover himself in the semis -- he seemed hungry and able to finally change his luck at the Sony Open. He even earned the first break chance of the match and dominated his early service games. But once Djokovic turned up the heat, Rafa had nowhere to go -- Nole broke in the sixth game of the match and never blinked again. He held Nadal to just fifty percent on both serves in the second set, never allowing the Spaniard a break opportunity again, and closed out his final in a drama-free eighty-odd minutes. He now stands behind just Andre Agassi in titles in Miami, and may have secured his place as the only man to beat here.

While neither of these outcomes might have been totally predictable -- at #2, Nole was the on-paper underdog in the final, and it sure looked like Serena would have to fight through three sets in hers -- the one-sided performances from both these champions sure puts them at a level above the rest of the field. And though things might be about to change for both of them -- the red clay season is just around the corner -- there's no reason to believe their domination won't continue.

And even on courts where they might not be at their best, they've certainly sent the message that everyone should beware.

March 27, 2014

It's Their Year

With the fields narrowing down as we head into final days of the Sony Open, it should come as no surprise that some of the stalwarts are hanging tough. Three-time champion Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, who won her sixth trophy here last year have been progressing with little drama, and heavyweights like Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and even 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych have bounced back nicely from disappointing results in Indian Wells.

But the real story might just be the new crop of tennis stars -- those who've seen success in the past but are only now putting together win after win consistently -- and they could be on the way to the best years of their careers.

Dominika Cibulkova was long my Little Engine That Couldn't. Though she popped in and out of the top twenty and scored huge wins over the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki -- last year she even had a set and a break up on Serena in the Miami -- she also had enormous meltdowns on court and played in three finals before winning her first title just over two years ago. This year, though, she's already beaten four top ten players, reached her first Grand Slam final and climbed to a high ranking of #11 in the world. In tonight's second semifinal -- she scored a huge come-from-behind win against Aga Radwanska to get here -- she'll meet Na Li for the third time this season. She has yet to beat the world #2 in their six previous meetings, but she did come close at the BNP Paribas Open and might just be up for the challenge this time.

The men aren't suffering any success hangovers either. Kei Nishikori, a bit of his career high ranking at #21 right now, successfully defended his title in Memphis last month and pushed Rafael Nadal in their Australian Open fourth round. This week in Miami, though, he's had his most success -- he followed up a win over last year's runner-up David Ferrer win a stunning three-set victory over Roger Federer last night, his second straight win over the all-time great. But of course the bigger story here continues to be Alexandr Dolgopolov, the uncontested Cinderella in Indian Wells -- after taking out Rafa, world #14 Fabio Fognini and big-serving Milos Raonic in the desert, he stayed tough against breakout Grand Slam titleist Stanislas Wawrinka to reach the quarters. He's up next against Berdych, a man he hasn't yet beaten, but the momentum he's been carrying with him could help change that. And at a tournament like this, there may be no better time to do it.

After years of riding the rankings roller coaster, all of these guys seem to be upping their consistency lately, and are clearly on the upswing. By performing at their best against the best day in and day out, they might be on the road to even bigger successes down the road. They might not ultimately win the titles here in Miami, but something tells me we haven't seen the last of any of them this season -- and if they keep their streaks going, there's no telling how high they can climb.

March 24, 2014

So Far, So Good...

Things have gone a little smoother for the seeds this week in Miami than they did at Indian Wells, with just a couple of the top ten on the women's side making earlier-than-expected exits at the Sony Open. But there's a lot of play left before the trophies are awarded, and at a tournament like this, certainly anything can still happen. And the way things have gone recently, nothing should take us by surprise.

Serena Williams wasn't in the draw in the desert, so the six-time former champion doesn't have to rebound, per sé. Still she's survived a couple tough matches, even dropping a set to rising star Caroline Garcia on Saturday before regrouping in the decider. And Maria Sharapova, having failed in her Indian Wells defense, eked out a win over always feisty Kirsten Flipkens earlier today, her second straight three-setter. Perhaps the biggest opportunity in the top half of the women's bracket lies with twelfth seeded Ana Ivanovic -- the one-time French Open champion managed what's nevertheless the biggest win of her career in Melbourne, and while she still has to get past the likes of Petra Kvitova today and then Sharapova -- who she hasn't beaten since 2007 -- she might just be playing the kind of ball to get her there.

The bottom half of the ladies' draw could also see the resurgence of a couple former #1's. Yes, the highest seeds have been progressing with little drama -- Na Li benefited from a walkover in her opener, and after being pushed to a tiebreak against Madison Keys, ultimately closed out that match in just over ninety minutes. And Aga Radwanska, so clearly struggling with injury during the Indian Wells final has so far seemed in good shape -- she delivered a bagel set to Romina Oprandi on Friday and after taking out Elena Vesnina in the third round, she's rewarded with another non-seeded opponent for a spot in the quarter. Even Dominika Cibulkova, a stone's throw from the top ten after a semi run in California, has been uncharacteristically consistent, dominating Yvonne Meusburger and then fighting back against spunky Alize Cornet. But her next opponent Venus Williams, champion here at the turn of the century, has been strong too, and Caroline Wozniacki, who slaughtered Sloane Stephens in last night's late match looks poised for a comeback. If they keep their games in tact, either could be a spoiler in this half.

The men have a little less play in the books so far, but Rafael Nadal, Stanislas Wawrinka and even Tomas Berdych have passed early tests. The problem in the top half of their draw, though, is that Alexandr Dolgopolov, the Cinderella story of Indian Wells, is still alive and kicking, having just scraped out a win over world #89, lucky loser Dusan Lajovic. But in a field that might have been made tentative by recent losses, perhaps the confident Roberto Bautista-Agut will come out on top. Already a winner over Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro this season, he knocked off big-serving Jerzy Janowicz to start this week off. He's got a pretty tough road forward, of course, facing Fabio Fognini later today and likely Rafa down the road, and making a real play for the title might be asking too much. But this seems to be the Spaniard's year, and I wouldn't put a couple more big wins past him.

There are quite a bit fewer holes in the bottom half of the men's draw. Only three seeds failed to win their opening rounds, and Kei Nishikori caused the only on-paper upset in the third taking out fifteenth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets. Meanwhile, all the favorites have done just fine -- Richard Gasquet bounced back from his early Indian Wells loss and David Ferrer, who skipped the trip to the desert, dropped just a handful of games in his two matches to date. Even defending champion Andy Murray, coachless in Miami since splitting with Ivan Lendl, took out Feliciano Lopez yesterday in just his second straight-set win in nine matches. But the player to watch here might just be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who battled back after losing his first set to veteran Marcos Baghdatis yesterday. The eleventh seed has had an up-and-down season so far, reaching the final in Marseille, but also getting ousted in the second rounds of Rotterdam and Indian Wells. He'll square off against Murray next, a man he's only beaten once, way back in 2008, but if he can take advantage of the Scot's spotty play, he could make a move to change that history.

Of course, odds lie with the favorites, and they'll all certainly do their part to make sure they stay at the top of their game. But there are more than a few opportunities for some upsets to sneak through, and any of these guys has the opportunity to really shake things up when things get most interesting.

March 20, 2014

A Slightly Different Story

It's easy to assume that the Sony Open, the second American hardcourt Masters event in March which, like Indian Wells before it, lasts nearly a Slam-like fortnight and attracts the best players in the sport, should play out along the same lines. But with more humid weather and arguably quicker courts at night, this is a vastly different tournament. Huge stars like Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova have never been able to lift the trophy, and only seven men and two women have won both in the same year.

That doesn't necessarily bode well for last weekend's champions in the Califonia desert, but it could mean those who were disappointed in the first half of the month have a shot at redeeming themselves this time. And there are plenty in the field who'll be looking to improve.

Those two Major champions certainly lead that list. Both titleists in Indian Wells last year, Rafa's loss in his third round to Cinderella Alexandr Dolgopolov was surpassed in shock value only by MaSha's earlier exit at the hands of qualifier Camila Giorgi. They've each reached the final in Miami in the past, many times, in fact, so they know how to win here -- the problem has been, of course, closing it out. Sharapova begins her campaign with the late-night match today against rising star Kurumi Nara, while Nadal will take on either Lleyton Hewitt or Robin Haase in his opener -- both matches the favorites should win. But we've seen surprises in the past of course, so if either is going to redeem themselves, they'll need to bring it from the start.

There are other ladies, though, also out to prove themselves over the next two weeks. Ana Ivanovic, Sam Stosur and Angelique Kerber have all fallen from the heights of their careers and are looking to erase memories from earlier than anticipated exits last week. They each won their openers in Miami already today, so may be on good ground to do so. Meanwhile Sara Errani, who failed to defend quarterfinal points in Indian Wells when she lost in the third round this year, and has at much at stake at the Sony Open -- she's facing off against Patricia Mayr-Achleitner right now and will want to make quick work of that challenge. But the real one to watch in the women's bracket is Sabine Lisicki, one of the biggest talent's in the sport who's nevertheless only won three first round matches this year. She's so far split sets with veteran Nadia Petrova, a woman she beat here three years ago, but she'll need to up her game if she wants to finally realize her full potential.

The men's seeds will begin their opening round matches tomorrow, but the pressure will be on them too. Jerzy Janowicz was the breakout star of 2013, somehow reaching the Wimbledon semis as the twenty-fourth seed. He lost his BNP opener to Alejandro Falla, though, and has yet to beat a top ten player at all this year. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been rather quiet this year despite a run to the Marseille final. He's made the quarters here three times before and might have the kind of section that allows him to do that yet again. Tomas Berdych, on the other hand, who had his breakthrough here four years ago, suffered one of the biggest early upsets at Indian Wells. He opens against another Melbourne Cinderella, though, so he'll be tested again right from the start.

But while all these guys are looking to turn around their luck, last weekend's winners can't be counted out just yet. Flavia Pennetta continued her run today with a straight set win over Olga Govortsova and Novak Djokovic, the last man to complete the Indian Wells-Miami sweep, will begin his quest for another title against Jeremy Chardy tomorrow. They way they're both playing, either could prove the transition isn't as tough as so many believe. And with the momentum they're carrying so far, it certainly will be tough to derail them.

Whether Miami becomes an opportunity for redemption or another tough slog for all these athletes of course remains to be seen. But it sure looks like a lot of the top players are well on their way to writing a plot twist to their seasons. And if they can keep it up, we might be in for a surprise ending no one saw coming.

March 17, 2014

The Resurrection

It's been a while since either of this weekend's champions held a trophy over their heads. To be sure, a "while" is certainly relative, and one of the victors had surely been suffering a much longer drought before ironically quenching her thirst in the desert of Indian Wells. But both performances seem to herald a bit of a change from what we'd seen early in the year, and might just set a new course for the rest of the season.

Novak Djokovic knows what it's like to win here, of course -- back in 2011, this was title number three in his seven-trophy streak that started the year -- but he was knocked out in the semis two years after that. And despite winning every match he played after last year's U.S. Open final, he hadn't reached a final weekend at all this season, his slowest start to a year since 2006. After defending champion Rafael Nadal was knocked out early, though, he was the on-paper favorite and, despite challenges from red-hot Marin Cilic and recent nemesis John Isner, made his way to Sunday's final as expected.

Nole was put to the test in that match as well. Four-time titleist Roger Federer didn't drop a set on his way to the final and was able to do what many others in the field could not -- end the runs of players like Kevin Anderson and the Cinderella of this tournament, Alexandr Dolgopolov. He kept his streak going on Sunday, grabbing an early break in the final and capping off the first set with little drama. Djokovic stayed strong, though -- he capitalized on some weak serving from the Swiss star and ultimately forced a deciding set. He got a lead in that one, too, but got a little shaky trying to serve it out -- Roger broke the world #2 at love and pushed the pair's thirty-third match to a tiebreak. But there the tide turned squarely in the Serb's favor. Nole got an early minibreak and never looked back, locking in the win and bringing himself within a stone's throw of an even record against the all-time great. It was Novak's first title of the year, but likely not his last, and puts him squarely in the spotlight as we move on to Miami.

The focus will be even sharper on Flavia Pennetta who, at this time last year, was ranked #92 in the world and quickly sliding. Having missed much of the 2012 season, she spent the early part of '13 rebuilding her game. Pennetta managed a run to the Strasbourg semis, albeit without facing an opponent in the top seventy, but only started to pull herself together at Wimbledon where the unseeded Italian reached the fourth round well below the radar. After that she stunned a handful of top players to make the Final Four in New York, her first Slam semi at thirty-one years of age, and kept it up in Melbourne with a run to the quarters. This week in Indian Wells, a tournament at which she'd only once won more than two matches, she pulled off an upset of sixteenth seed Sam Stosur, then recouped quickly after a marathon against American upstart Sloane Stephens to shock Aussie champ Na Li in straight sets. With the win, Pennetta had entrée to her first final in over two years and the possibility of her first title in almost four.

She'd be the underdog in this match, though. World #3 Agnieszka Radwanska had been on similar stages before, reaching the Wimbledon final in 2012 and having already added a couple Premier-level titles to her mantle, and having survived threats from one-time champion Jelena Jankovic and Romanian upstart Simona Halep, she was the clear favorite. But Pennetta had won their last meeting in Dubai just a few weeks ago and Aga was visibly struggling with injury throughout Sunday's match. Flavia secured an early break on the Pole and never ceded the lead. In just over an hour she'd secured the win, easily the biggest crown during her veteran career, and put her star back definitively on the map -- as of today's WTA rankings, she's #12 in the world, a far cry from the doldrums she trolled over the summer.

There's not a lot of time for either of these newly-minted champions to revel in their wins, though -- while both get byes in the first round of the Sony Ericsson Open, the ladies' action begins in less than twenty-four hours! Still, if they recover in time, as they've both shown they can do, it could be another big fortnight for both these guys. And there's no reason they won't be able to carry that momentum with them to even bigger things throughout this year.

March 14, 2014

Full of Possibilities

The BNP Paribas Open is not a Grand Slam event, but with the vast majority of the sport's top stars making the trip to the California desert, it sure can feel like one. And that's what makes the action over the last few days so interesting -- sure some of the favorites have survived through the last few days, but there are plenty of players reaching new heights in Indian Wells and doing so against the best out there. And any one of them could still walk away with the title.

The top half of the men's draw was gutted early and often, with defending champion Rafael Nadal's third round loss followed quickly by Kevin Anderson capitalizing on struggling Aussie Open champ Stanislas Wawrinka and Milos Raonic extending his winning record over Andy Murray. That leaves Rafa's vanquisher, red-hot Alexandr Dolgopolov battling four-time titleist Roger Federer for a spot in the final. Sure, experience is on the Swiss star's side, and after his win in Dubai, he's clearly not to be counted out here. Still, Dolgo followed up the biggest win of his career with two more upsets -- the first over thirteenth seed Fabio Fognini, the next over big-serving Raonic, both in straights. Another victory, especially over such an intimidating opponent, would be a tall ask, but the way the young Ukrainian is playing, I wouldn't put it past him.

The other two semifinalists will be decided later today, and we could get some surprises here too. Yes 2011 champ Novak Djokovic is still in the mix, but the rest of the field is slightly less decorated. He next faces veteran Julien Benneteau who, in his fourteen-plus years on Tour, has yet to win a single singles title. He took out world #10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his second round, but hasn't faced much of a challenge since, and while the thirty-two year old Frenchman did beat Nole once -- on these courts, but way back in 2006 -- odds are clearly with the Serb. Benny might just have the hunger to make a statement now, but it's the other semi which holds more potential for a breakthrough. Oft-injured John Isner stormed back on court with gutsy wins over Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco. The one-time runner-up at Indian Wells has beaten Djokovic here before and could have recovered enough to do it again. And twentieth seed Ernests Gulbis, who actually leads the pair's head-to-head, has already notched victories over three top-ten players this season. He's improved on his fourth round appearance here from last year, and with momentum from his trophy in Marseille, could make a real play for this title too.

The battle for the ladies' title is a little closer to over, with both of today's matches deciding who will play in the final. Unlike with the men, both of the top two seeds have advanced according to plan, but neither Melbourne champion Na Li nor often-overlook Agnieszka Radwanska have ever won a title here. Both have been tested in their campaigns, too -- Li held tough during a rematch of the Aussie final against Dominika Cibulkova, rallying from a break down to win five straight games and the deciding set, while Aga lost a 4-0 lead in the third versus Jelena Jankovic before claiming her spot in the semis. But both were able capitalize on their experience, and should be the big favorites in their respective matches.

But two other ladies will look to be the spoilers. Flavia Pennetta has been on the comeback trail for much of the last year, and she followed up a Cinderella run to the U.S. Open semis by making the quarters Down Under. She kept her now 5-0 record against Sam Stosur perfect in the third round and yesterday rallied from a break down in the third to Sloane Stephens to finish off a match she should have one a set earlier. She'll be tired, for sure, when she goes up against Li later today, but with a 2-3 record against the top seed -- albeit well before Li came into her own -- she knows how to win and could pull off a surprise now. And Simona Halep, putting together what's easily been the best year of her short career so far, far surpassed her previous best showing at the BNP Paribas Open by making the semis. While she did drop sets to both Lucie Safarova and fellow Aussie standout Genie Bouchard this week, she has won her last two meetings with Radwanska -- the most recent in Melbourne a few weeks ago. She might be the on-paper underdog, but something tells me she's about to come into her own.

Of course it's going to be difficult for anyone to get past the big dogs still fighting it out in Indian Wells, but with the performances we've seen already the last week or so, many of those in the field could keep their streaks going. And if they can do it here, on one of the biggest stages in the sport, they likely can do it anywhere at all...

March 11, 2014

Turning Up the Heat

Things sure got interesting fast in Indian Wells, didn't they?

With a couple rounds still left to go, both of last year's champions bowed out in spectacular form on Monday, creating holes in the draws wide enough to fit a truck.

Sure it began early, with 2012 titleist Victoria Azarenka succumbing to injury and falling to Lauren Davis in her opener. But Maria Sharapova quickly followed suit, losing an early break to qualifier Camila Giorgi. She was able to force a third, but Giorgi stayed tougher in the two and a half hour match, closing out the biggest win of her career. The young Italian, just off her highest ranking at #79 in the world, knows how to play against the big names -- she beat Caroline Wozniacki last year at the U.S. Open and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2012 with wins over Flavia Pennetta and Nadia Petrova. Her problem so far has been the follow-through, but with a largely cleared out section of the bracket, this might be her turn.

The bigger shock -- if not on paper, then certainly in excitement -- may have come from the next match in Stadium 1. Three-time champion Rafael Nadal, who'd reached at least the final of every event he's played this year, had already survived a scare from Radek Stepanek in his opener, but with a 10-0 set record against Alexandr Dolgopolov in his third round, he was still the favorite. Rafa stumbled early, though, dropping serve three times in the first set, but despite getting just 32% of his first serves in, the world #31, who'd lost to the top seed just a few weeks ago in Rio, held on for the set. He got a break in the third, too, and though he flinched when trying to serve out the match, some solid serving in the tiebreak notched him his first career win over a top-ranked player. He's still the lowest seed in his half, but with some of the blistering shots he was hitting Monday, he might not be that big an underdog.

But while these guys have been grabbing the headlines recently, still others could be the beneficiaries. Sloane Stephens, who'd only beaten one top fifty player so far this year, scored an upset of Ana Ivanovic in her third round and the seventeenth seed is now the highest ranked player left in her quarter. And Melbourne Cinderella Casey Dellacqua has continued her momentum in the desert with wins over Kirsten Flipkens and Roberta Vinci this past week. But the biggest opportunity in the bottom half of the ladies' draw might be with Caroline Wozniacki, winner in 2011 and runner-up last year. The former world #1 did manage one title late last year -- a far cry from the seasons when she was pulling in five or six -- but she's only gone as far as a semi in Dubai in 2014. She's still a low seed in her section in Indian Wells, but she managed wins over often spunky Bojana Jovanovski and Yaroslava Shvedova in her last two rounds, and she's beaten her next opponent Jelena Jankovic in their last five meetings, just taking the lead in their head-to-head. If she can keep her cool, it might be a great chance to re-assert herself as part of the elite.

On the men's side, the top half is still full of seeds -- albeit, not always the ones we'd predicted -- still a couple flying under the radar might be able to capitalize. Kevin Anderson has quietly reached the final of the last two tournaments he's played, and though he's up next against this year's breakout star Stanislas Wawrinka -- admittedly, a man he's never beaten -- the big-serving South African might be more warmed up an primed for an upset. And Milos Raonic, absent from Tour since the Australian Open, made his return with a couple big wins this week. He also has a 2-1 record against on-paper favorite his next opponent Andy Murray, who himself has had to come back from losing sets in his first two rounds. Still the bottom half, where a full half the field is unseeded, could be where we see the most excitement. Fernando Verdasco, 2-3 on the year before coming to California, frankly surprised me with his win over Horacio Zeballos in his opener. He's dead even with Richard Gasquet, who he'll meet later today, and is the underdog to be sure, but the Spaniard has pulled off upsets before and could certainly do it again.

There's a lot of ball left, of course, and none of these players' paths forward are certain at all, still they've each been able to deliver so far at the BNP Paribas Open. And as the stakes get even higher in the days ahead, they'll have to turn up their A-games even farther. There's no telling when their opportunities will come, but if they keep bringing the heat, any one of them could stun us all.

March 8, 2014

Their Big Break

With a couple days of play in the books in Indian Wells, it hasn't been all tea and roses for the sport's biggest stars. And while several seeds have run through their matches, many have struggled to eke out early wins and still others have fallen much sooner than they would have hoped. And that may have created a big opportunity for a couple underdogs.

The biggest upset on the women's side, of course, has been the loss of 2012 champion Victoria Azarenka who, contending with injury since the Australian Open, lost her opener to twenty-year-old American Lauren Davis who'd never before beaten a top ten player. The world #66 does have a nice section of the draw too -- the next seed she's slated to meet would be Roberta Vinci, but the Italian is so far only 1-5 on the year -- so she might not have to put up a big effort to get much farther. But perhaps the lady with the least to lose in this half is German teenager Annika Beck, who beat a recently unimpressive Elena Vesnina in her second round. She'll face off against Aga Radwanska, a semifinalist here a couple years back, so her path forward is a little less certain. Still, Beck's already beaten players like Genie Bouchard and Sam Stosur this year, so there's no reason she can't pull off another shocking win.

The upsets on the top half of the bracket haven't been quite as headline-worthy, but that doesn't make them inconsequential either. Aleksandra Wozniak, whose injury-riddled 2013 season pushed her ranking to nearly three hundred today, rallied against Sabine Lisicki to score her first win over a top twenty player in almost two years. And while she has an immediate challenge against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova next, there's no reason the veteran Canadian can't find the strength for another win. But we might just see the most fireworks in the very bottom of this section. Young Spaniard Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor just ended a three-set break-fest -- fifteen in total -- with fifth seeded Angelique Kerber, setting up a meeting with a true comeback story, Alisa Kleybanova. The young Russian was diagnosed with cancer back in 2011 and hasn't played much since returning to court a year later. But this week she's already handled a spunky Victoria Duval and earlier today took out red-hot Garbine Muguruza in straight sets. If she is healthy again -- and so far in the desert, it seems that she is -- she might just surprise us all.

Only half the seeded men have played their openers so far in Indian Wells, but those that have have already been tested. Jerzy Janowicz went three sets and lost to clay court specialist Alejandro Falla, while favorites Milos Raonic and even Andy Murray were pushed to deciders before closing out their wins. And that could give players like Jiri Vesely a chance to shine. The 2013 ATP Star of Tomorrow didn't get to play the Davis Cup matches I was so anticipating, but he did reach the semis in a Heilbronn Challenger event and today survived a challenge from world #35 Pablo Andujar. He has been through two tough three-setters, though, so he might be a little spent when he takes on Murray in a few days -- but if he can capitalize against a player who knows little about who he's facing, the young Czech could cause quite the upset.

In the bottom half of the men's draw the favorites have yet to show their stuff, but a couple players' performances in their first rounds might suggest they have an edge. Veteran Nikolay Davydenko was pushed to three sets by sputtering David Goffin, but with his next opponent John Isner dealing with injuries himself the last few weeks, the Russian might just be able to pounce. And Roberto Bautista Agut, the Cinderella fourth-rounder in Melbourne, delivered a one-sided loss to American Steve Johnson and could give Tomas Berdych a run for his money in his next round. But perhaps we should focus on Paolo Lorenzi, the veteran Italian coming off his first career championship match in Sao Paulo last week. Unfortunately for him, he's up against a sizzling Marin Cilic, who's made at least the final of the last three events he's played. Still, if Lorenzi is the more rested of the two, he could keep his own streak going.

Of course it's one thing for these players to pull off another win or two in Indian Wells -- it's quite another for any of them to make a real play for the title. But if they're able to take advantage of the opportunities they've created for themselves so far, there's no reason to believe they've each got a great chance to bring even more heat to the desert.

March 5, 2014

A Change of Scenery: Indian Wells 2014 Preview

We've officially entered the mini-Slam period of the year, when the world's best tennis players take a break from the Latin clay court season and switch to the American hardcourts for some of the highest-profile events outside the Majors. And with the BNP Paribas Open kicking off in just a few hours, we should be in for a lot of excitement in both draws.

The Ladies

With Serena Williams electing again not to play in the desert -- she had her name on the preliminary entry list until early February -- Australian Open champion Na Li takes the top seed in Indian Wells. She was a semifinalist back in 2007, and made the quarters last year, so she could just capitalize on Serena's absence. But players like 2012 titleist Victoria Azarenka, who hasn't played at all since Melbourne, and defending trophy-holder Maria Sharapova, who successfully avenged her loss in the final the previous year, will look to take advantage of a draw missing one of their biggest rivals.

But the top seeds won't be the only ones in contention this fortnight, and some less experienced players might be ready to break through. Simona Halep has catapulted to #7 in the world and just claimed her biggest title to date in Doha. And Dominika Cibulkova, who had struggled after her final run Down Under, turned things around last week and took a title in Acapulco. And players like Pattaya City champion Ekaterina Makarova and Dubai finalist Alize Cornet, who stunned Serena in those semis have been marking good results all year. But also keep an eye out for Klara Zakopalova, who's played in three finals already this year and finally ended a nearly nine-year title drought with a crown in Brazil. She's set to meet Li in the third round, which isn't ideal, but the way she's upped her game recently, she could just surprise us all.

Still the real story at tournaments like these are the Cinderellas, and some of the seeds face challenges from the start. One-time world #15 Julia Goerges hasn't worked her way back to seeding territory yet, but she has managed wins over the likes of Elena Vesnina and Sara Errani this year. And Alison Riske, who's climbed into the top fifty after making the third round in Australia and the quarters in Hobart, is in a section of the draw where the biggest immediate threats are oft-injured Kaia Kanepi and consistently inconsistent Caroline Wozniacki. But Belgian teenager Alison Van Uytvanck has also been proving herself the last few months -- she lost in her first Major main draw in Melbourne, but reached the quarters in Florianopolis and cracked the top hundred for the first time in her career, and though she'd likely face off against Azarenka if she makes the third round, she might be ready for her breakthrough.

And while these ladies are looking to poke some holes in the draw, a couple others will try to reestablish themselves. Sloane Stephens was long heralded as the next big thing in American women's tennis, but since making the Aussie semis last year, she's struggled to follow through and only has a 3-3 record on the year. Sabine Lisicki too, a finalist at Wimbledon after years of battling injury and disappointment, hasn't gotten past the second round of any event this year. Her first match will be against either Urszula Radwanska or Aleksandra Wozniak, either of whom could be a huge challenge if she's playing at her best. But most interesting might be the fate of Roberta Vinci, whose quarterfinal run at the U.S. Open last year seemed to portend big things. But the Italian hasn't won a single singles match in 2014, and though she's grasping onto a thirteenth seed in Indian Wells, she'll want to prove quickly that she deserves to go even higher.

The Gentlemen

The men's draw is just as intimidating, and though world #4 David Ferrer pulled out with a leg injury, three players in the field have combined to win nine of the last ten titles. Defending champion Rafael Nadal seems to have recovered from his injury-plagued Australian Open final by winning a title in Rio, and Roger Federer proved he's still a contender with his trophy in Dubai. And, sure, Novak Djokovic hasn't won a title yet this year -- his worst start to a season since 2006 -- but as the second seed at the BNP Paribas Open, he can't be counted out. Still all eyes will be on Stan Wawrinka, whose first Major trophy in January not only grants him the third seed here, but also raises his profile to a level he hasn't seen before. He's only played one (Davis Cup) match since Melbourne and, facing a potential quarterfinal meeting with compatriot Federer -- who he hasn't beaten since 2009 -- he will need to make sure he's on his game from the start.

But lower seeds could cause a stir too. Kevin Anderson has made finals in Acapulco and Delray, and while he might face two-time champ Lleyton Hewitt in his opener, none of the seeds in his immediate section of the draw should be too intimidating. And Alexandr Dolgopolov's final in Rio and semi in Acapulco pushed him back into seeding territory. He's only got one hardcourt title to his name though, so this would be a big ask. But the biggest possibility for an upset might come from Marin Cilic, ranked a middling #26 in the world, but coming off a final in Rotterdam and titles in Delray and Zagreb. With a third round date with Nole and a possible hot-court rematch against Gilles Simon in the quarters, he's got a tough road, but clearly he's proven he's up for the challenge.

There are a couple men out there that could very well upset the balance of the draws in Indian Wells too. Alex Bogomolov hasn't quite capitalized on his stunning 2011 season, but he did make the quarters in Memphis, and took a set from eventual champion Kei Nishikori in that round. But perhaps most interesting could be the first round match-up between Aussie spoiler Roberto Bautista-Agut and young American Steve Johnson, who made the quarters in Auckland and beat Tommy Haas in Delray. The Spaniard is the higher ranked player, but both have the potential to be real talents in this sport. Whoever survives could carry that momentum with him a couple rounds more.

But like with the ladies, there will be a couple guys looking to get their game back on track. John Isner, who did win a title in Auckland to start the season, has battled injury since and has a potentially tough opener against Nikolay Davydenko. And Mikhail Youzhny, who withdrew from his third round in Dubai and only won one match this year before that, will meet one of two spunky Americans in his opener and could face off against a pink-hot Anderson next. But also watch out for always volatile Fernando Verdasco, accomplished on all surfaces, but unimpressive since reaching the quarters at Wimbledon. And even Andy Murray, who arguably is coming off the best year of his career, is still recovering from back surgery -- his straight-set loss to Djokovic at a pre-event exhibition in New York suggests he's still not quite there yet.

It's always tough to make the transition from one surface to another, especially when so much is on the line. But even with the favorites playing so well, the draws certainly seem pretty wide open this year at Indian Wells. And that could only mean we're in for one really great tournament.

And whoever comes out on top will have to put up quite a fight to get there.

March 1, 2014

He's Not Going Anywhere

The great Roger Federer had fallen this season at his lowest ranking in more than eleven years.

In 2013 he'd only won one title, his least prolific showing since 2001 when he claimed his maiden crown in Milan. He put up an encouraging fight in Melbourne, sure, but lost in straight sets in the semis, extending Major-less streak to six -- a long run for him. He'd beaten a couple top ten players this year, but over the last twelve months has also lost to then-world #116 Sergiy Stakhovsky and little-known Federico Delbonis, not much better at #114.

At thirty-two years of age, it's easy to assume there was not much gas left in Roger's tank, and that maybe we'd seen him lift a trophy for the last time.

But this week in Dubai Federer was able to squeeze out a little more of his star power.

Seeded just fourth at the event, he had a fairly easy road to the semis, but with four other top-ten players in the draw, there were plenty of threats still out there. He lost the first set to Novak Djokovic, who'd beaten him in their last three meetings, but found the strength to rally and reach the final. Today too he got behind against Tomas Berdych, who'd beat him on these courts just a year ago -- he lost the first set and got down a break in the second before rallying to force a decider. And he stayed strong in the third, fighting off opportunities for the Czech to draw back even and ultimately closing out the match and the championship in just under two hours.

It was Federer's sixth title in Dubai, his seventy-eighth crown in total, and marks his fourteenth consecutive year with at least one singles trophy. And with a couple wins over players now ranked higher than him, it certainly seems like he's still got the fire power to add to those totals. Whether he makes a play for another Slam in the months that come, or rides this momentum to a couple more Masters titles, one thing's for sure -- those who'd written him off already will have to put him back at the top of their lists.

Roger Federer isn't about to roll over just yet.