March 16, 2015

The Boys Are Back

While the 2015 tennis season has certainly seen its fair share of breakthroughs already, not everyone's gotten the results they'd hoped for.

But in the first couple days of the BNP Paribas Open, a couple guys who've been struggling of late have been able to recapture the strength that's given them so much success at Indian Wells in the past.

Rafael Nadal has won this title twice in the past, but last year he made a rather ignominious exit in the third round -- his first upset in a string of early losses in 2014. He hasn't done too much better this year either -- after getting drubbed by Andy Murray at pre-season exhibition he was stunned by world #127 Michael Berrer when defending his Doha title, barely squeaked past Tim Smyczek in Melbourne and lost to a struggling Fabio Fognini in Rio. He seems back on track now, though, thumping Igor Sijsling in his Sunday night opener. The road gets harder from here, of course -- he'll take on a reinvigorated Donald Young next. The once-flailing American seems back on course, reaching the semis in Memphis and the final in Delray. Rafa's won the only match these two have ever played -- on these courts seven years ago -- but this time could me much different. A win, though, could give him a lot more confidence as the tournament goes on.

Alexandr Dolgopolov may not have earned as much hardware in Indian Wells as Nadal has, but he was the one who managed the upset of the then-#1 here last year. The young Ukranian rode the win all the way to the semis and followed up with a win over Aussie champ Stan Wawrinka a few weeks later in Miami. A knee injury during the summer, though, really hampered the back half of his season and he only won one match after July. He's struggled in 2015 too, losing to Bernard Tomic in Memphis and Paolo Lorenzi in his Melbourne opener. Now #41 in the world, he's back out of seeding territory in California, but he has managed two straight set wins so far, taking out low seed Santiago Giraldo yesterday. He'll get a rematch of last year's quarterfinal against Milos Raonic next, and that will certainly be a challenge -- the Canadian is at a career-high #6 in the world and made at least the quarters of the first three events he's played this year. But Dolgo did get the underdog win last year and if he can put up a fight again this time, it could do loads for his confidence again.

John Isner could certainly use a little boost to his morale too -- the big-serving American may be best known for one match in his career, but he's actually had a couple huge wins on these courts too. In 2012 he took out world #1 Novak Djokovic in the desert on the way to his first Masters 1000 final and last year he came oh-so-close to doing it again in the semis. It's been a rough couple months since then though -- after taking the title in Atlanta last year he hasn't done too much, losing to sub-#60 players in Washington and Toronto and never winning more than two matches at an event since. He hasn't played a lot this year, but lost pretty handily to a rising Gilles Muller in Melbourne and last weekend in Davis Cup action, couldn't hold on to a two-set lead over world #111 James Ward, losing 13-15 in the fifth. Things might be looking up, though -- Isner opened with a win over an on-the-rebound Jurgen Melzer and, after a tight first set against Kevin Anderson earlier today, rolled through the second set and finished off the South African in an uncharacteristically quick 80 minutes. He's now likely set up a rematch with Novak Djokovic in the fourth round, but he should know by now he's more than capable of the upset. And this could be his best chance to make something of the opportunity.

It's not that these guys have been out of the picture for so long -- in fact, it was only recently that they were each making some big statements on the courts of Indian Wells. But they've all fallen on rough times over the last few months, and what better way to erase those memories than by cementing their comebacks this week.

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