Tennis’s Oasis: Indian Wells launches 2011’s Masters Series
The jewels in tennis's ATP calendar, its nine Masters events, are here at last, writes Marianne Bevis
These are the last hard court events before spring ushers in the clay, and they will not appear again until the tour heads back to North America in late July.
Little wonder, then, that the United States’ hard court siblings draw the biggest crowds and the biggest prizes outside the Majors.
The first of them, Indian Wells, is set like a sapphire in the Californian desert, and attracts more people than any other Masters -a record 340,000 last year.
It’s a place drenched in blue, wholly in tune with its watery origins. This popular stop on the tennis tour is as close to paradise as wealth can bring to the desert. It overflows with flowers, trees and fountains, and the courts sit like miniature Aegean Seas within their grass-green surrounds.
The pale violet and blue peaks of the Santa Rosa mountain range provide the serene backdrop to an oasis of a tennis garden spread out in the dry heat beneath cloudless skies.
The setting may be perfect, but the Masters challenge is huge. The draw contains a quality of field matched only by the Majors -Indian Wells has every player in the top 10 and 45 of the top 50. And although matches are best-of-three-sets, the tournament is crammed into little more than a week. That means six matches are played back-to-back, sometimes day, sometimes night. Small wonder that no player has managed to win all nine Masters.
All three of the top seeds -Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, are past champions at Indian Wells. Fourth seed, Robin Soderling, has been all but unbeatable in 2011, with 18 wins from 19 matches and three titles from four tournaments. No5, Andy Murray, was runner-up at the Australian Open, won two hard court Masters last autumn and was runner-up in Indian Wells in 2009. On paper, then, this big title is a very close one to call.
Top seed Nadal returned to action in the Davis Cup last week after a five-week lay-off with a thigh injury. He’s also just played a Nike exhibition in Oregon where he beat Federer 7-5, so he appears to be fighting fit.
He has a good record at Indian Wells: He has reached the semis or better in all six previous visits, and won the title in 2007 and 2009, beating top hard-court exponents Djokovic and Murray respectively.
Nadal has a record 18 Masters titles to his name already and, judging from his draw, he won’t miss a 19th by much at Indian Wells. For there is very little, including no fewer than four qualifiers, to worry him in his eighth.
His scheduled quarterfinal opponent is David Ferrer, probably the least threatening opponent that each of the top four contemplates. Ferrer has had a great season thus far, but this is not his environment: He has never won a Masters event, never reached the final of a hard-court Masters, and went out in the first round last year.
There are only a couple of other players capable of disrupting the Nadal cruise. Gilles Simon, now high enough in the rankings to be seeded, has had some good performances this year, but he had a heavy schedule in last weekend’s Davis Cup, where he lost, in more than four hours, against Jurgen Melzer.
Meanwhile, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has lost to Nadal in their last four matches, all of them on hard courts.
This is a far more interesting quarter, placing man-of-the-moment Soderling at the top against -at the bottom -a Murray just returning to the tour after a break to recuperate a sore wrist.
Since the two of them met in the quarters in Indian Wells last year -Soderling won in straight sets -they have swapped positions in the rankings and the Swede is enjoying a real surge of form. He does, though, face one of the toughest eighths in the draw.
The exciting newcomer in the rankings, Alexandr Dolgopolov, shocked Soderling in the Australian Open and is a potential opponent in the last 16. That’s always supposing the returning Juan Martin Del Potro, who won in Delray Beach last week, doesn’t beat Dolgopolov to it in the third round.
Murray should have no problems against Fernando Verdasco or Sam Querrey -neither is playing reliable tennis. Indeed fast-rising Wild Card Richard Berankis has the potential to upset both those seeds on his way to the last 16. But expect a Murray-Soderling quarter.
Djokovic has the No2 ranking in his sights after a stunning opening to 2011. He is on a 12-match winning streak, including back-to-back wins at the Australian Open and Dubai, and he won in Indian Wells in 2008.
The Serb can take overtake Federer if he wins the title next week, or if he reaches the final and Federer does not, or if he reaches the semis and Federer loses before the quarters.
He will be the favourite in his quarter, though a strong challenge may come in the second round from Andrey Golubev, another young player rising through the ranks.
At the other end of this quarter, however, is Andy Roddick, who always performs well in March’s American double-header: He was a finalist in Indian Wells and the winner in Miami last year. He also troubles Djokovic on the North American courts: He won three of their last four meetings in Indian Wells, Cincinnati and Montreal.
So this has the potential to be the quarter-final of the tournament and one that may see an upset, especially if the sore shoulder that kept Djokovic out of last week’s Davis Cup tie is not 100 per cent.
Federer won three successive titles in Indian Wells from 2004 to 2006 but this year faces two contrasting challenges. He has to fend off a Djokovic nipping at his heels in the rankings and is attempting to equal Nadal’s 18 Masters titles.
However, his quarter is full of tripwires, and that’s before a potential quarter-final against the man who put him out of last year’s Wimbledon, Tomas Berdych.
With not a single qualifier in this quarter, there are instead two wild cards. One is wunderkind Milos Raonic, who tops the ATP aces stats for the year and has hurtled to just outside the seedings -at No 37 -from 156 at the start of 2011. His game is a big threat in the hot, dry Californian conditions.
Also lurking is Nikolay Davydenko. The Russian has had a torrid time of late and so has plunged out of the seedings. But on a good day, on hard courts, in a best-of-three-sets contest, he can beat anyone, though he has Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic to beat before he can reach Berdych and then Federer.
While Federer should make the quarters -subject to the Raonic serve -Berdych will face a strong challenge in his eighth. Should he meet Federer, however, it will be a tight match, just as both their 2010 hard-court Masters were: Miami and Toronto both went to third-set tie-breakers.