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.

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