Among the 32 seeds on the men’s side, only Robin Soderling—suffering with glandular fever since last summer—was absent.
On the women’s side, there were only two absentees. Newcomer to the world top 10 at the end of last year, Andrea Petkovic has not played since the beginning of January because of a back injury. And the dominant woman of the last decade, Serena Williams has not played at Indian Wells since winning it—a decade ago—in 2001.
But how quickly things can change.
Injury problems flared up early on the women’s side: Greta Arn, Alexandra Dulgheru and Jelena Dokic all failed to complete their first matches.
And then something rather more unexpected began to spread its tentacles across this California valley to claim victims indiscriminately. A gastric viral infection hit both draws to take out first-round winners Philipp Kohlschreiber, Andreas Seppi and Magdalena Rybarikova.
The next to fall was the men’s No14 seed Gael Monfils before his second-round opener. By the end of the same day, the No9 woman Vera Zvonareva had withdrawn from the third round in tears, and American Vania King, having taken the notable scalp of No13 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, also had to pull out.
As the day went on, Jurgen Melzer, already a loser in the singles, was forced out the doubles with the same virus.
By the close of play on opening Sunday, more alarm bells rang when the most sought-after man here looked as though he, too, was under the weather. Roger Federer blew hot and cold against teenage wild-card, Denis Kudla, breaking sweat early and taking a time-out after the first set. It proved to be a straightforward win for the No3 seed but he afterwards confirmed that his was a different, flu-type virus.
What, though, was behind the speedy demise of one of the favourites for the women’s title, Petra Kvitova?
Well it did not appear to be illness but rather another of the band of young American women making their mark at Indian Wells this year. Christina McHale, ranked 32, is only 19 years old but beat both Caroline Wozniacki and Marion Bartoli on the North American hard courts last summer.
This weekend, she pulled off an even bigger upset by pulling back the 2011 Wimbledon champion from a set down. McHale took four straight games in winning the 6-2 second set and then broke for a 4-1 lead in the third set before closing out the match, 6-3.
With beguiling understatement, she commented on the fearsome Kvitova forehand: “It took me a while to get used to her big shots, but I definitely got a lot more comfortable as the match went on.”
McHale will be joined in the fourth round by another giant-killing American, the 99-ranked 22-year-old wildcard, Jamie Hampton, who scored a three-set win over Jarmila Gajdosova after first beating former champion, Jelena Jankovic.
A new day, however, and a new set of contenders for the title—still resisting illness—were ready to take centre stage.
One in particular was a fascinating rematch between No6 Sam Stosur and No33 Nadia Petrova. The last time they met was in the longest US Open women’s singles match since the introduction of tiebreaks. On that occasion, the tall Russian was on the losing end and Stosur went on to win her first Grand Slam. This time, in another marathon of three sets and two and three-quarter hours, it was Petrova who served 15 aces on her way to only her fifth match-win since that New York record-maker.
However, nothing—illness, injury nor the efforts of other players—looked able to halt the progress of the top two.
Victoria Azarenka, after a shaky opening match, took only an hour to dismiss the formidable No25, Svetlana Kuznetsova, for the loss of only three games. She had beaten the Russian—a fellow Grand Slam winner—only once in their five previous meetings, but a lot of water has gone under the bridge since they met three years ago. Azarenka turned on a champion-style performance to record her 19th straight win of the season.
As a result, she is already being asked the question: Has she thought about an unbeaten season? But this supremely assured young woman who seems, all at once, entirely at ease with the role of champion, simply laughed it off: “It’s a long season!”
The woman that Azarenka is seeded to meet in the finals is the woman she beat in the Australian Open final a few weeks back—Maria Sharapova—and the Russian took the same amount of time in an identical score to beat her first opponent here, too.
She was expected to hand her next victim, Simona Halep the same treatment and she started full of aggressive hitting leavened, now and then, by a transition to the net.
The rallies were short and thunderous as Halep, playing Sharapova for the first time, fought to contain her opponent’s power. And if the big ground strokes were not enough to intimidate the Romanian, the ponderous stare that Sharapova habitually casts down the court between points was. The Russian broke Halep twice to take the set, 6-3.
She raced to a 5-0 lead in the second, too, with destructive two or three-stroke rallies: typically serve or return of serve, followed by a huge forehand winner.
Halep did make an unexpected surge to pull back two breaks and earn the chance to level at 5-5, but the over-reaching Sharapova pulled back a little, refocused and stopped the flow at 6-4.
“I thought I played extremely well the first four or five games of [the second] set. Almost too good…I felt like I was going for a lot and making a lot. Then felt like I almost started going for a little bit too much. Instead of being patient…I just hit a few errors that I shouldn’t have made. I got it together in the end.”
With Stosur and Sabine Lisicki gone from her quarter, the former champion is looking very good for a semi-final place. There, she is scheduled to meet one of the other two former champions still left in the draw, Wozniacki or Ana Ivanovic.
The day, though, held one more interesting twist. Just as Stosur was losing on Centre Court, Francesca Schiavone was succumbing to the dreaded virus on No3 court and Kvitova was withdrawing from her doubles duties with Azarenka due to—yes—illness.
How far Kvitova’s defeat in the singles here was affected by the virus, we shall never know, but her season so far, after such a soaring end to 2011—the WTA Championship and the Fed Cup—has not been a happy one.
Since a semi-final finish at the Australian Open she has been hit first by injury and then illness. This was her return to the tour, and she will be hoping that Miami sees a change in her fortunes.
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BIOGRAPHY: Mohamed Salah