This oasis in the desert, set against a backdrop of purple mountains and cloudless sky, hosts the first of nine ATP Masters and the first of four WTA Premier Mandatory tournaments in the year.
And by any measure, it is a hard tournament to miss. Along with its sister on the east coast—the Miami Open—Indian Wells fills the whole of March in an arduous climax to the hard-court season.
What makes the prestigious double-header especially gruelling is that the draws are second only in size to the Majors, comprising 96 men and women, each with a full complement of 32 seeds. Those seeds at least have a bye to the second round so ‘only’ have to play six matches if they want to win the title. For the unseeded, the task is bigger still: seven matches, just as in a Grand Slam.
The venue and the rewards, though, match the tournament’s stature. Indian Wells offers more than $10 million in prize money with each of the champions earning a $1 million purse.
As for the courts, Indian Wells’ main stadium, a magnificent green and azure bowl, is the second largest in the world after the US Open’s Arthur Ashe. The Tennis Garden’s landscaped grounds cover 54 acres, and this year are home to a brand new Stadium 2 with 8,000 seats—one among 29 palm-fringed courts. What’s more, it is the only tournament that provides Hawkeye on all match courts for both main and qualifying rounds.
But this year, those courts will be missing some key players, not least two of the biggest names in tennis, both of them former champions.
Roger Federer, world No3 and a four-time champion, will be absent for the first time since 2000 as he continues to rehabilitate his knee after arthroscopic surgery.
Then yesterday, two-time champion Maria Sharapova withdrew. The world No7 has managed just one tournament this year, a quarter-final run at the Australian Open, and last year she played only one match between Wimbledon and the WTA Finals. But the same forearm injury that forced her out of Brisbane in January has taken its toll on Indian Wells, too.
Adding to the tournament’s woes today is world No8 David Ferrer who, after failing to defend either his Rio or Acapulco titles, hinted that he may withdraw after overplaying this year. The 33-year-old, after six back-to-back tournaments this year without progressing beyond the quarters, said: “I am not sure if I will play in Indian Wells or not, because I’ve travelled a lot, I played a lot… Everything in life is tennis and now I’m at a time in which I think I want to enjoy what I have gained in my life.”
And he has indeed pulled out. Not that Indian Wells has been a particularly profitable stop on the tour for Ferrer. He has missed it only once since 2003—with a leg injury in 2014, but has only once reached the quarters and has five times fallen at the first hurdle.
Also withdrawing this week are No39 Marcus Baghdatis, who reached the final in Dubai last week, and No43 Tommy Robredo, who join No31 Fabio Fognini, No34 Ivo Karlovic and No96 Jerzy Janowicz on the sidelines.
However, two big and popular names are returning to the fray in Indian Wells.
On the men’s side, Juan Martin del Potro has a wild card into the tournament, just his second event of the year. The big Argentine has played only 18 matches since the World Tour Finals in 2013, felled time and again by chronic wrist problems.
But when he has played at Indian Wells, del Potro has enjoyed plenty of success. In his last four visits he has made the quarters twice, the semis once and, in that last full season of 2013, reached the finals.
An even more significant name appears on the women’s start list. For the first time in 15 years, the mighty Venus Williams, who will be 36 this June and is still ranked No12 after illness problems of her own, will return.
She follows the lead taken by her younger sister, world No1 Serena Williams, last year. The two vowed never to play at Indian Wells again after the reception they got in 2001, when their scheduled meeting in the semis was called off due to Venus’s illness. Serena made her peace with the tournament, and a semi run to boot, in 2015. Venus returns this year.
As for British interest, an already strong start list has been boosted by the inclusion of No84 Heather Watson in the list of Wild Cards. She joins No27 Johanna Konta, who is riding high in British rankings since her outstanding semi run at the Australian Open, and Laura Robson, who has played little and very spasmodically in the last two years as she nurses a persistent wrist injury. She pulled out of this year’s Australian Open, and as recently as last week withdrew from Acapulco: Her return, therefore, will be watched with interest.
On the men’s side, world No2 Andy Murray, who was a finalist at Indian Wells in 2009 and a semi-finalist last year, is joined by No52 Aljaz Bedene and, in his first season inside the top 100, Kyle Edmund. The 21-year-old Briton has reached the finals of two Challengers in recent weeks, winning in Dallas last month, and will be ranked 83 for his debut appearance at Indian Wells.
It is entirely possible that more will come through qualifying, too: 12 qualifiers in each draw come via this route.
A big hope on the women’s side will be 26-year-old Naomi Broady, who is finding a rich vein of form this season. She moved into the top 100 for the first time in February after winning an ITF event in Midland, USA, and impressed in Auckland with a quarter-final finish to open the year.
Now Broady is into just her second main tour semi-final in Kuala Lumpur after beating former Wimbledon finalist and current world No31, Sabine Lisicki, ensuring a further new high in the rankings come Monday, though not in time to earn direct entry into Indian Wells.
Broady is not the only British woman playing well this week, though. Konta just failed to make the semis in Monterrey after a tough two-hour quarter-final, while Heather Watson took on Caroline Wozniacki for a place in the semis in the night session.