The first Tennis Masters Series event of 2012 begins in earnest this weekend on the sun-soaked hardcourts of the Coachella Valley. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are scheduled for Saturday second round play at Indian Wells, while Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal share the stage on Sunday.
For the umpteenth time when they do play, the “Fab Four” will again be the focus of the men’s draw along with the dim hope that someone, anyone can knock one of them out. But my guess is one week from now the last four will look an awful lot like it did at Melbourne in January.
Djokovic comes in as the tournament favorite and he’s my pick to defend his title and win it again over Nadal. But I don’t think he’s that same dominant player we saw a year ago. After needing to save a matchpoint to beat Federer at the US Open, he didn’t win another title until the Australian, where he needed back-to-back epic 5-setters to win. Then last week in a sloppy performance Murray got him in Dubai.
Sure, he’s fantastically fit and full of confidence, but I just wonder if his game has dropped off. Perhaps he’s taken “his foot off the gas”. Often when athletes reach the top of the sport, as Djokovic has done, they let down. Maybe this is that let down. And that’s why I think for Djokovic this month is crucial for the season. If can’t win either Indian Wells or Miami he’ll really open the door for Nadal on the clay and Federer on the grass. If manages to repeat or just win one, I think he reminds his foes that nothing has changed, he’s still the man the beat.
“I don’t consider myself being in the top of the world, being untouchable or unbeatable,” Djokovic said today. “That’s out of the question. I always try to give my 100 per cent on every practice that I have. I always wanted to have the positive mindset in preparing well for every event, for every season. I think that helps me to stay committed and focused on what I need to do. My job is to play tennis, to win matches and try to win as many titles as possible.”
If there’s any real decline in Djokovic’s level we should see it this month.
For Nadal, it’s been a long time since he’s even tasted victory, save one on hardcourt. Rafa’s French Open win came last June, and while he’s played well since then he’s collected zero hardware. And his last hardcourt title was in Tokyo almost 18 months ago. It’s been a while and as he approaches 26 I wonder how many more titles on the cement are left in those ailing knees.
After starting the year with a bad shoulder, which really wasn’t an issue in Australia, though his knee was – Rafa smartly took an extended break to prepare for this important Indian Wells-Miami stretch. So he should be healthy, fresh and motivated knowing his draw is good – even with Federer in the SF – and maybe there are some cracks in Djokovic.
“I try my best every day to improve my level of tennis, to be a better player, year by year. If that’s enough to beat Novak, that’s fantastic,” said Nadal.
“If not, I will keep on working. When I wake up every morning and go on court to practise, I don’t think about [him]. I think about what I need to improve in my game.”
We’ve talked at length about Federer slipping, but that was last summer, before the Swiss magically found the fountain of youth at age 30. Since rolling over into a new decade Federer has won five of his last seven tournaments including two straight titles beating Juan Martin Del Potro and Murray at Rotterdam and Dubai, respectively.
While his run has been unexpected as impressive, he did lose to his chief rivals Djokovic at the US Open and Nadal in Australia. To get back to the top he’ll have to beat both of them. We all know it. And four of the five titles came indoors, three of which at the end of last season when maybe some players are either low on fuel or just closing down for the year.
Still, Federer is playing great, confident tennis but if he wants to get back to No. 1 tournaments like Indian Wells and Miami are the events he’ll need to win. Rotterdam, Dubai, Basel and even the London Finals are great victories, but this month there are tournaments that stake their claim as the “Fifth Slam”. The prize is big.
Of all the Fab Four, Murray entered 2012 with the most attention. Having hired tennis great Ivan Lendl, Murray came out of the starting gates flying. But in typical Murray fashion when faced with strong headwinds he fell back down to earth. Murray played well in a 5-set semifinal loss to Djokovic in Melbourne, then got revenge on the Serb last weekend in Dubai only to lose the very next day in the final to Federer.
Now Murray seems to be back to his #4 spot in the Fab Four’s pecking order. With the clay season around the corner this may be his last chance for a few months to make a strong move upwards.
If anyone can break up the Fab Foursome that burden likely falls on broad shoulders of Del Potro and JW Tsonga. But in the desert where free-swinging power merchants have struggled in the wind and light air, it’s hard to see that happening this week. Del Potro has again drawn Federer in quarter. Tsonga gets Nadal in the same round. Perhaps a surprise in another form will await?
As for tomorrow, Andy Roddick will try to right the ship against the underrated Lukas Kubot. Mardy Fish, Ryan Harrison and John Isner join Roddick in the American charge.
The women’s field is led by blondies Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova. Current No. 1 Victoria Azarenka escaped earlier tonight needing a third-set tiebreak to beat Mona Barthel who twice served for the match but couldn’t pull off the upset.
Tennis Channel will have complete coverage of Indian Wells Saturday from 2pm ET. Let the March Madness begin.
SATURDAY INDIAN WELLS SCHEDULE
STADIUM 1 Start 11:00 am
Ana Ivanovic (SRB) v Johanna Larsson (SWE)
 Andy Roddick (USA) v Lukasz Kubot (POL)
 Novak Djokovic (SRB) v [Q] Andrey Golubev (KAZ)
Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) v Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)
Not Before 7:00 PM
Gisela Dulko (ARG) v Maria Sharapova (RUS)
Not Before 8:30 PM
 Andy Murray (GBR) v Guillermo Garcia-Lopez (ESP)
STADIUM 2 Start 11:00 am
 John Isner (USA) v [LL] Frederico Gil (POR)
Sergiy Stakhovsky (UKR) v  Tomas Berdych (CZE)
Samantha Stosur (AUS) v Irina Falconi (USA)
Andreas Seppi (ITA) v  Mardy Fish (USA)
Ryan Harrison (USA) v  Viktor Troicki (SRB)
Marion Bartoli (FRA) v Varvara Lepchenko (USA)
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