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...

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