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.

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