The three men who have held the No1 ranking in an unbroken line for more than 12 years, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, lead the Masters titles rankings by a mile—Nadal with 27, Djokovic 26 and Federer 24—and the finals rankings by an even longer distance—Federer 42, Nadal 41, Djokovic 38.
At this elite level, Andy Murray has of course also made inroads with 11 titles, and put together, ‘the four’ have created a glass ceiling that few have cracked.
In the last 11 years—99 Masters tournaments—the quartet has won 83 crowns: just five other active players have any: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga with two, plus Tommy Robredo, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka with one apiece.
But when it comes to this particularly challenging, particularly beautiful tournament—played out in its indigo-and-green oasis against the purple Santa Rosa mountains—only ‘the three’ have won the prestigious title: Djokovic and Federer four times apiece, and Nadal three times.
And of those three, it is world No1 Djokovic who has, in the last couple of years, dominated Indian Wells along with many other tournaments. He beat Federer in the last two finals here, has built a 41-6 tournament record, and has reached the semis or better in seven of his 10 appearances, including the past five.
But that is not all: Djokovic has been making headlines at every turn. Only an eye-infection halted a 12-month unbroken run of finals dating back to winning the Australian Open in 2015 and ending with a repeat at this year’s Australian Open—a span of 17 finals and 13 titles.
As if the mighty Serb has not commanded the tour—and this event—enough, perhaps his closest challenger, Federer, who faced and beat Djokovic in more finals than anyone else last year, will be missing in Indian Wells for the first time since 2000 as he recovers from knee surgery. So the door is well and truly open for a record fifth Djokovic title.
In what shape No2 seed Murray, who reached the Indian Wells final in 2009, will return to the hot outdoor hard courts is not certain, though he has won multiple titles in Miami, Canada and Cincinnati. His first competitive action since losing the Australian Open to Djokovic was last weekend in Davis Cup. Played indoors, it also turned into a gruelling affair of three back-to-back matches, the last one of the longest he has ever played.
Twice Murray has met Djokovic at Indian Wells, both semis, both losses, and he has won only one match in their last 12, the Montreal Masters last year. All things considered, then, this may not be the tournament where Murray beats his nemesis, especially as his draw from the fourth round onwards is filled with trip-wires: first Nick Kyrgios or Gael Monfils, both in good form, then Brisbane champion Milos Raonic or Berdych—if both are fully fit—with Wawrinka, already a two-time champion this season, in the semis.
Nadal’s record over Djokovic is little better than Murray’s. He has managed only one win since the summer of 2013, the French Open in 2014, but has lost nine other meetings. At their most recent in Doha, after a 6-1, 6-2 trouncing, Djokovic overtook Nadal in this most played of rivalries, 24 to 23.
The Spaniard’s form last year and this has still not returned—consistently, at any rate—to its formidable level of 2013 when he won 10 titles. He has already suffered a couple of surprise losses this year, to Pablo Cuevas and Fernando Verdasco, and the latter man could be a third-round test here, with Quito champion Victor Estrella Burgos before and Rotterdam champion Martin Klizan after.
But if Nadal negotiates his way through his quarter via Kei Nishikori and Gilles Simon, he can come face-to-face with Djokovic in the semis: a hard road indeed.
2016 has thrown some fine young names into the spotlight and up the rankings, starting with 22-year-old Dominic Thiem.
The Austrian leads the tour with 20 match-wins, beat Nadal on his way to the Buenos Aires title, Ferrer to reach the Rio semis, and Bernard Tomic to win Acapulco. He stands at a career-high No13, but has a fascinating match against 23-year-old Jack Sock in the third round.
In Nadal’s quarter is teenage rising star Alexander Zverev, now ranked 58 and with a first ATP semi plus wins over Marin Cilic and Simon behind him. He plays 31-year-old Ivan Dodig in the first round.
Wawrinka’s quarter has three more main-draw debutants in his section, 21-year-old Briton Kyle Edmund, as well as 18-year-olds Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe drawn against one another in the first round. The tall American Fritz has been in hot form, reaching the final in Memphis and the quarters in Acapulco.
Another intriguing early match could arise between 19-year-old Borna Coric, the highest ranked teenager at No47, and the returning Juan Martin del Potro, who played only two tournaments last year due to ongoing battles with wrist injury. The Argentine made the semis of his only event this year in Delray Beach, but after qualifier Tim Smyczek in the first round, could meet Berdych in the second.
One more battle of the young bloods is lined up for the second round between 19-year-old Hyeon Chung and Marseille champion, Kyrgios.
Perhaps the biggest threat to Djokovic’s chance of a record Indian Wells victory is Wawrinka, who famously denied the Serb at the French Open last year, and like Djokovic, he has two titles this year.
The Swiss No4 seed is one of 24 over-30s in the draw and perhaps the most dangerous, though his best results in the desert are two quarter-final runs. He does, though, continue to grow more confident with age, but is not the only ‘mature’ player doing well.
Other older champions in 2016 are Viktor Troicki, Estrella Burgos, and Pablo Cuevas (twice), and more seeded over-30s include Philipp Kohlschreiber, Feliciano Lopez, Tsonga, Simon, John Isner, and Berdych.
Missing from main draw: No3 Federer; No8 Ferrer; No15 Kevin Anderson; No31 Fabio Fognini; No34 Ivo Karlovic; No39 Marcus Baghdatis; No43 Robredo; No70 Pablo Andujar; No96 Jerzy Janowicz; No105 Sergiy Stakhovsky
Previous champions in draw: Djokovic; Nadal
[NB all seeds have a bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]
No1 seed Djokovic quarter
R2, Bjorn Fratangelo (qualifier) or Teymuraz Gabashvili
R3, first seed, No27 Kohlschreiber
R4, No18 Lopez or No14 Roberto Bautista Agut
QF, No7 Tsonga, No31 Sam Querrey, No21 Sock, or No11 Thiem
SF, No4 Nadal or No5 Nishikori are top seeds
No4 seed Nadal quarter
R2, Gilles Muller or Estrella Burgos
R3, first seed, No25 Klizan
R4, No23 Grigor Dimitrov or No16 Simon
QF, No9 Isner, No19 Benoit Paire, No30 Steve Johnson, or No5 Nishikori
SF, No1 Djokovic or No7 Tsonga are top seeds
No3 seed Wawrinka quarter
R2, Dmitry Tursunov or Illya Marchenko
R3, first seed, No28 Jeremy Chardy
R4, No15 David Goffin or No22 Cuevas
QF, No8 Richard Gasquet, No26 Alexandr Dolgopolov, No20 Troicki, or No10 Cilic
SF, No2 Murray or No6 Berdych are top seeds
No2 seed Murray quarter
R2, Marcel Granollers or Damir Dzumhur
R3, first seed, No32 Joao Sousa
R4, No13 Monfils or No24 Kyrgios
QF, No6 Berdych, No29 Thomaz Bellucci, No17 Tomic, or No12 Raonic
SF, No8 Gasquet or No3 Wawrinka are top seeds