The most refreshing thing about the Indian Wells tournament that is taking place in the California desert is that both titles appear to be up for grabs in a way they haven’t been for a long time, particularly on the ATP side of the pro fence.
Now that the first weekend is over (you can think of that first Wednesday through Sunday as a kind of mega-qualifying event for the week that begins Monday), a pattern is beginning to emerge from the confusion that is part and parcel of any major or combined 10-day event.
The two No. 4 seeds, Tomas Berdych and Victoria Azarenka, have bitten the desert sand. Berdych was upset by an emerging talent, Roberto Bautista Agut. Azarenka has larger problems -- mainly a nagging foot injury so serious it might jeopardize her entire spring -- or worse. That’s noteworthy for the WTA contenders because Azarenka, a former No. 1, also has been the champ on the gritty and slow desert hard courts.
The No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany also has gone kaput, as has that unpredictable but deadly desert flower Daniela Hantuchova. Although her seeding was a lowly No. 29, Hantuchova improbably won this event twice. That makes her a force to reckon with, but now she’s just one less thing to worry about for top seed Li Na.
Li, the recent Australian Open champ, is on a mission to prove she’s a worthy Grand Slam champ and potential No. 1. That means she’s making an effort to perform at her highest level more consistently than ever. With Serena Williams once again taking a pass on this event, Li has a terrific opportunity to walk the walk.
Of course, an opportunity so big for a player so capable of seizing it also brings to bear a certain amount of pressure. And that’s something Li has not always handled well. One of the major obstacles in Li’s path is ultratalented but power-challenged Agnieszka Radwanska, who also has performed unpredictably in big matches. The other, Maria Sharapova, can be terribly erratic. Her scream is often louder than her bite.
Given that Li herself has been prone to lapse into ugly and counterproductive moods and attitudes, we might even see a relatively fresh face accepting the winner’s trophy: long-overdue Caroline Wozniacki, Dominika Cibulkova, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur or perhaps even Sloane Stephens.
The back problems Nadal experienced at the Australian Open haven’t cleared up despite a significant break and rehab. And, although the top seed and world No. 1 likes to put a brave face on, we all know back injuries are the trickiest and potentially most problematic of all.
Partly because of continued back pain, Nadal barely pulled out a win over 35-year-old Radek Stepanek in the second round this weekend. With his service motion altered in response to pain, Nadal banged out eight double faults (a career high) and gifted Stepanek with 10 break points.
That probably was welcome news to Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka et al., given Nadal’s record at Indian Wells. (He has won the title three times and has made at least the semis every year except in his debut in 2014.) Add to this cloud hovering over the head of Nadal the apparent resurgence of Federer, the emergence of Wawrinka, the fitness of Andy Murray and what appears to be the pulsating motivation of Djokovic and you can see why nobody, not even among the pundits, is conceding the title to anyone.
It’s difficult to imagine someone other than the men mentioned in the above paragraph winning this thing, but take a look at that third quarter of the men’s draw -- the one with the huge hole in it thanks to losses by No. 4 Berdych and lesser seeds Florian Mayer and Philipp Kohlschreiber (both of whom are tough outs).
Grigor Dimitrov, the talented No. 15 seed who needs to make a move to justify all the hype that has surrounded him, is in that quarter, and he just might fit through that gap, and once he pops into the semis -- who knows?