By Toni Headley
Toni Headley is a tennis expert who worked at ESPN for 10 years and has been a freelance writer there for the past 2 years. She also previously worked at CBS Sports and has covered every major tennis tournament in the world multiple times.
As the biggest and brightest stars descend on the picturesque town of Indian Wells, California for the BNP Paribas Open, I am excited to see how newly minted #1 Victoria Azarenka will fare in her first big test since winning her maiden Grand Slam title in Australia. Also, can Novak Djokovic maintain his dominant form that carried him to his fifth Grand Slam title in Australia and defend his title here in the desert?
Will the weight of being the #1 player in the world finally get to Azarenka? It certainly has not so far. After winning the Australian Open and becoming the #1 ranked player, Azarenka continued her dominance by winning her next tournament in Doha. She is currently riding a 17 match winning streak. Azarenka has had a sizzling start to the year winning three titles which includes her first Grand Slam. Let’s see if Azarenka can win here for the first time, and continue her dominance on the women’s tour.
Djokovic continued where he left off last year by winning his fifth Grand Slam and his third Australian Open title, in what is billed as the greatest Grand Slam men’s final ever. A five set encounter against his main rival Rafael Nadal that lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes, the longest Grand Slam final of the open era (44 years). A match that ended in the wee hours of the morning at 1:37AM local time that saw both players completely exhausted and none the worst for wear. Following his Australian Open triumph, Djokovic took some time off for a much needed vacation. He returned to defend his title in Dubai where he struggled through the first three rounds before losing to Andy Murray in the semifinals. On that particular day, he had no answer for the Scot’s serve or return game. Let’s see if he can rebound from that loss and defend his title here in Indian Wells and in Miami where he has 2000 points to defend in the next four weeks.
There will be many challengers to Azarenka and Djokovic here at the BNP Paribas Open. Let’s take a look at the men’s field. The biggest challengers will be Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and Juan Martin Del Potro. No disrespect here to the #5 ranked David Ferrer, #6 ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, #7 ranked Tomas Berdych, or the #8 ranked Mardy Fish, but Del Potro belongs in that group, and I would not be surprised that by the end of the Indian Wells/Miami swing, that he is ranked in the top five.
The “Fantastic Four” is turning into the “Fantastic Five” as Del Potro is finding his 2009 form that guided him to his first Grand Slam title at the US Open. After a devastating wrist injury in 2010 that required surgery, Del Potro is slowly working his way back up the rankings and now sits at #9, the highest he has been since reaching #4 in 2010 following his first Grand Slam win in New York.
Murray will be very confident coming off his big win against Djokovic in Dubai two weeks ago if they should face each other again in the semifinals of Indian Wells. Despite his first round loss last year to American Donald Young, I believe he will do well because of the addition of his new coach, the legendary Ivan Lendl. Nadal has had an extended break from tennis since his epic finals matchup against Djokovic in Australia. So he will be well rested and eager to get back to the finals like he did last year. Nadal is on Federer’s half of the draw and I like his chances of advancing to the finals. Of the “Fantastic Five,” no one is more confident right now coming into this tournament than Federer. He is on a 10 match win streak, winning back to back titles in Rotterdam and Dubai. Let’s hope his brief stop in New York where he lost an exhibition match to Andy Roddick at the BNP Paribas Showdown in Madison Square Garden does not hurt his chances here. Of the top four players, Federer has the toughest section of the draw. He could face the big serving Canadian Milos Raonic in the third round, a possible quarterfinal match with Del Potro or Ferrer, and Nadal in the semifinals if the seeds hold true.
Another challenger to the “Fantastic Five” is David Ferrer, who enjoys playing on the hard courts despite his stellar clay court record. Ferrer has had a fast start to the year winning three titles already, with his only lost coming at the Australian Open to Djokovic. Ferrer has the best record on tour at 18-1. I expect him to play well here, but I don’t see him getting by any of the big five to win the tournament. I like the big serving Canadian Milos Raonic to do some damage. His massive serve should translate well in the dry desert air. Raonic has played in three finals this year, winning two. I believe that Raonic will be a top ten player soon.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had a fast start by winning the first tournament of the year in Doha, but has fizzled of late. I expect him to be around for the second week of this tournament. Though it should be noted that he has not gotten past the round of 16 at Indian Wells, so that’s as far as I think he will progress. The big serving Czech Tomas Berdych has had a decent year so far winning a title in Montpellier. I expect him to be around in the second week as well. However, I am somewhat surprised that he has not done better here in previous years. His best result is a quarter-finals in 2010, where he lost to Nadal in straight sets.
A few players to watch who could go on a streak and challenge the field are Andy Roddick, (Yeah I know he is ranked #31) Mardy Fish, Janko Tipsarevic, Fernando Verdasco, John Isner, and Sam Querry. Why Roddick? He is playing better since coming back from injury, he has played well here in the past and the home crowd should help. The home crowd will also help Fish, Isner, and Querry. This would be a great tournament for Fish to turn his game around and get back to playing like the number one ranked American. Good to see Verdasco playing well again after a dismal 2011 season. He made the finals of Acapulco, which helped to get his ranking back up in the top 20. Janko Tipsarevic has continued where he left off in 2011 and his now a solid top ten player, I expect him to do well here.
Let’s take a look at the women’s field. Victoria Azarenka has won three titles this year. Can she continue to dominate the women’s game and win here in Indian Wells? I think a few players might have something to say about that. Maria Sharapova for one will be poised to exact some revenge after the beat down she received at the Australian Open if they should meet in the finals (they are on the opposite side of the draw).
Caroline Wozniacki is the defending champion and former #1 player in the world. She currently sits at #4. Wozniacki has a lot of points to defend and could fall further down in the rankings if she can’t get to finals. That will be extra motivation for her to play well here. Petra Kvitova, the #3 ranked player, who has had a slow and injury riddled year so far, will be trying to win here for the first time. If she does, she could be closing in on becoming #1 for the first time in her career. Azarenka and Kvitova are slated to meet in the semi-finals if the seeds play out (same side of the draw).
How about the newly ranked #5 and former best friend of Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska? She will be looking to make a statement if they should meet. They are on the same side of the draw and are slated to meet in the quarter-finals. Outside of Azarenka, Radwanska has played the best tennis so far this year. She is 17-3 on the year with all three losses to Azarenka.
I do not like the chances of the 2011 US Open champion and the #6 ranked player Sam Stosur. She has struggled since winning her first Grand Slam title, and I am not sure if this is where she will turn it around. Her best result in the desert is a semifinal appearance in 2010. She is in Sharapova’s section of the draw and they could meet in the quarter-finals if the seeds play out. And I don’t like her chances against Sharapova.
Other top players to watch who could have a breakthrough here are #7 Marion Bartoli, #8 Li Na, #13 Sabine Lisicki, and #15 Julia Goerges, all of whom are capable of going on a hot streak and winning the title. Former champions Daniela Hantuchova (winner in 2002 and 2007), Ana Ivanovic (winner in 2008 and finalist in 2009), Vera Zvonareva (winner in 2009), and Jelena Jankovic (winner in 2010), enjoy playing in the desert and could pose a significant threat to the top players.
MEN’S FINAL: NADAL vs. MURRAY
-NADAL IN 3 SETS
WOMEN’S FINAL: AZARENKA vs. SHARAPOVA
-AZARENKA IN 3 SETS
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.