With dusty car-parks drenched to subdue the sand and shuttle buses rolling in the hundreds from every packed hotel, the buzz started early with a star-filled schedule aiming to better even the previous day.
For Centre Court boasted four straight Grand Slam winners: Juan Martin del Potro followed by Rafael Nadal and then Victoria Azarenka playing Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The closing match of the day session might have disappeared into the shadows except that it featured two of the most entertaining men on the circuit—both Frenchman, both full of flair, both happy to play attacking tennis: No6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga against the left-handed serve-and-volley skills of Michael Llodra.
As for the evening, well that held the delights of three-time Indian Wells champion Roger Federer and WTA Fans’ Favourite, Agnieszka Radwanska.
And for those without Centre Court tickets? Well they could savour David Ferrer, Petra Kvitova, Na Li, Fernando Verdasco, Vera Zvonareva, Janko Tipsarevic, Alexandr Dolgopolov – the list went on.
For one among this list, though, this venue holds particular significance this year. Nadal is making his first singles appearance since losing in the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic in an epic of almost six-hours.
The Spaniard took the whole of February to rest and recuperate some niggling problems, even opting to sideline the Davis Cup, but no doubt he also wanted time to consider how to solve the problem of the Serb.
That problem began in earnest in California’s desert oasis exactly a year ago, the place where Nadal lost, from a set up, the first of seven straight finals to the man who took his No1 ranking at Wimbledon. Djokovic has stayed at the top ever since.
Nadal was asked ahead of the tournament what he could do to reverse his fortunes.
“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. 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.”
Nadal has always thrived at Indian Wells, though: He seems to love the relaxed vibe and the heat, and has won the singles twice—in 2007 and 2009—and the doubles in 2010. But the success goes deeper than that. Nadal has reached the semi-finals or better the last six times he has played here: In fact his only pre-semi loss was back in 2004 when he was just 17.
This year, he was again leaving nothing to chance, taking on the doubles competition to help sharpen things up after nearly so many weeks away from competition.
“My reason for playing doubles is that I didn’t play for a month. I think doubles is a good way to practise for everybody, where you can practise different movements, different shots. When you have days off [from singles], you can play an extra match. And if you lose, you have another chance to be in competition.”
He and Marc Lopez made short work of the No3 doubles seeds and he was clearly keen to make an equally good showing in his singles opener. His hapless opponent was the 24-year-old, 78-ranked Argentine, Leonardo Mayer, whose record this year was three wins, all on clay, out of nine matches.
Nadal, decked out in the blues of Indian Wells, opened serve and despite a loose double fault, he held with ease and immediately broke the Argentine. Another double fault was his only concession in the third game and the rout continued in the fourth, a break to love. It was very nervy stuff from Mayer, very ruthless stuff from Nadal, and another love service game came and went before the Argentine won his first game.
Up to this point, Mayer had won only four points on Nadal’s serve—and two of those were from double faults. Mayer had to find his first serve to stand a chance—he managed just one point from nine second deliveries—but his sub-50 per cent average was not good enough and Nadal closed out the set, 6-1, with a clean 13-out-of-13 points won on first serve.
The second set began more auspiciously, with Mayer holding serve as he found some power and range on his ground strokes, but he soon found himself in deep water again at 0-40 down in the third game and a double fault gave Nadal the break.
Mayer very nearly went down a second break in the fifth, saving two break points, and he resisted again in the seventh through several deuces to keep the deficit at 3-4, but that was as good as it got. The match ended much as it had started, with a break to love to Nadal for a 6-3 set and the match. This time, he lost only one point out of 17 on serve in the entire second set.
After such a dominant win he was, naturally, very buoyant about his performance.
“Is nice to be back playing at a very good level. Winning is the most important thing…I started the match very focused, very aggressive…only one thing I can say, I’m very happy. Happy about almost everything.”
As for those terrific serving stats, he had his own explanation.
“Play aggressive without unforced errors, that’s why I lost very, very few points, not because I served crazy aces. The important point is I had the right percentage of first serve in, and that gives me the chance to start the point with an advantage. That’s my game. If I start the point with an advantage, with my forehand, normally I have the control of the point.”
Nadal will next play fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers and also saw two more compatriots sail through the bottom half of the draw. Fernando Verdasco beat the dangerous Ryan Sweeting and David Ferrer took barely an hour to beat the equally dangerous Grigor Dimitrov. However, Feliciano Lopez, the No15 seed here, fell to Marcos Baghdatis.
Scheduled to face Nadal in the quarters is Tsonga, whose opponent retired after five games, while in Federer’s quarter, del Potro, the only man to have broken the stranglehold of the top three seeds in the last 28 Grand Slams, advanced to a third-round meeting with Verdasco.
Federer has a bumpy road before a potential fourth meeting with del Potro this year but the last of the men’s seeds to play should have few problems in at least reaching the next round: His opponent is wild card Denis Kudla.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas