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.

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