March 23, 2015

At the Top of Their Games

The last couple months have given plenty of under-the-radar players a chance to shine on Tour, but over the last week or so in Indian Wells, we got to see the very top players really show us what they've got. And for one of this weekend's champion, we got a glimpse of just how much more she's capable of.

We haven't seen too much of Novak Djokovic since he won his fifth Australian Open in January -- the world #1 has only played one event since, falling in the Dubai final to Roger Federer. Not surprisingly the top two players in the sport fought their way through the draw in the California desert too, setting up their thirty-eighth career meeting. Djokovic was barely challenged in his first five matches, getting a walkover from a back-in-form Bernard Tomic in the quarterfinals and drubbing Andy Murray for his sixth straight win over the Brit. Roger had a similarly easy road to Sunday's match -- after avenging his Melbourne loss to Andreas Seppi he quickly dismissed Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic, who'd just a day before eked out a win over former champ Rafael Nadal. But their final was not nearly so straightforward -- Nole got the first break of the match early, converting for once after squandering all seven opportunities he held in the Dubai final, but Federer fought back and took the second set in a tiebreak. After trading breaks again in the decider, Djokovic finally took hold of the match, winning the last four games in a row to claim his fiftieth title and his twenty-first Masters 1000. And with momentum now squarely back in his corner -- he and Roger have alternatively won all of their last nine meetings -- he might just be able to swing things back in his favor for many more matches to come.

Young Simona Halep may only be just starting to build her momentum, but by following through on her breakout 2014 season, she's certainly given us reason to believe she's here to stay. The third seed at Indian Wells, she actually faced more than a few challenges during her run -- she dropped her opening set to qualifier Daria Gavrilova, went the distance against a tough Varvara Lepchenko and needed another comeback versus Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarters. She got a big break on Friday, though, when Serena Williams pulled out of the semis with a knee injury, but with a win over the world #1 not that long ago, she might have been able to pull off another if given the chance. It was the other half of the draw where things got really interesting though -- with players like Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and Genie Bouchard all getting shocked early, 2009 champ Jelena Jankovic, just 2-4 on the year before this tournament, was the surprising final contender. She looked like she would pull off the upset here too -- up a set and a break on the heavy favorite -- but Halep regrouped late in the second and was able to even the score. The ladies kept it close in the third too, but the Romanian was finally able to get the only break of the set -- surprising since they'd lost serve a combined seventeen times in the first two -- and clinched her biggest trophy to date after more than two and a half hours on court. And with the next round of Majors quickly approaching, there may never have been a better time to make such a big statement.

Sure both of these champions were tested during their runs in Indian Wells. But by coming out on top they showed they can truly triumph in the face of adversity. And as the stakes get higher in the weeks to come, they've each made a case for themselves as the ones to beat.

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