The scatter of indigo courts set in this oasis in the desert, ranged against a backdrop of pale blue mountains and beneath the clearest of blue skies, cannot help but thrill both player and fan.
The BNP Paribas Open has, not surprisingly, been voted the best by both the ATP and WTA tours, and on this hot, dry day, some of the best were about to ply their trade for the first time in this famous tennis garden.
World No1 Novak Djokovic would headline the cooler evening schedule, but through the course of the day there would be US Open champion Marin Cilic making his 2015 debut after shoulder injury, Kei Nishkori who, a week ago, broke the top four for the first time after a blistering 16-3 start to 2015, and the man who beat Nishikori in the Mexico final, evergreen No8 seed David Ferrer—plus half a dozen other top-20 seeds.
And all that aside from this week’s No4, back among the top quartet where he has resided for many a year, Andy Murray.
The Briton has nine Masters crowns to his name, but Indian Wells has proved elusive. Just once has he made the final, losing to Rafael Nadal, and last year he lost in the fourth round. So there were points to be made in his tussle to stay among the top four seeds for the next Masters in Miami.
And all the signs were that Murray was in a good frame of mind. He was reunited with coach Amelie Mauresmo for the first time since reaching the final of the Australian Open, and despite two subsequent quarter-final losses in Rotterdam and Dubai, he arrived in California buoyed up by victory in front of a jubilant home Davis Cup crowd.
The move across time zones and to a very different climate is, of course, a challenge, but by chance he opened against a man in a similar situation. Canada’s Vasek Pospisil was fresh from victory in Davis Cup in homeland Vancouver, and Murray knew just how tough an opponent he could be, as they had played only a month back in Rotterdam.
Murray won that match, though it was not easy, for Pospisil is one of the more promising young players on the tour, won the Wimbledon doubles title last year with Jack Sock, and had broken the top 30 before back injuries knocked him back.
Not that he looked too dangerous in a fast opening set. Pospisil played a great first game, serving out to love, but he would not win another game as Murray took advantage of too many errors from every part of the court, including Pospisil’s big serve. Indeed the Canadian conceded the first set after half an hour with a double fault—his 19th unforced error of the set compared with two from Murray.
The Canadian found some extra focus and some better serving at the start of the second set. He broke a furious Murray in the opening game, but the Briton broke straight back and they stayed on level terms until 3-3.
Pospisil pressed hard in the fifth game, but Murray survived several deuces, and the Briton’s chance came courtesy of some long, patient and taxing baseline plays to bring up three break points at 4-3 when Pospisil double faulted.
The pressure on the Canadian was palpable, and he smashed an easy overhead into the net for a break. Minutes later, Murray served out the match to love, 6-3, in a satisfying 79 minutes.
Murray admitted that Pospisil had not served well: “He didn’t serve so well today, which helped me. I was using my forehand well and managed to push him back on the court. I thought I did quite well.”
He undersold himself: This was a good, patient performance with very few errors. But Murray’s next will be a real contrast when he takes on Philipp Kohlschreiber, who took only 51 minutes and dropped only four games to beat wild card Tim Smyczek.
The No26-seeded German looked very nimble and confident, too, and will provide a different test for Murray, one of angles, spin and variety. And in their last meeting, at Roland Garros last year, Murray edged the win, just, 12-10 in the fifth set.
Nishikori’s match against young American Ryan Harrison showed just how tough it is to transition between tournaments. He had moved from indoors in Memphis to the hot outdoors of Mexico, then back indoors to play Canada in Davis Cup—playing a five-set thriller against Milos Raonic along the way—and within days was back in the hot outdoors of Palm Springs.
He and Harrison suffered six breaks of serve in eight games, and made a combined seven winners to 25 errors before the Japanese man broke again and held for the first set, 6-4. The level improved in the second set, but again Nishikori took control with the single break to seal the win, 6-4. He next plays No28 seed Fernando Verdasco.
In the same quarter, No14 seed Ernests Gulbis ended a run of six straight first-round losses dating back to Basel last October to beat lucky loser Daniel Gimeno-Traver, 6-4, 6-1.
The biggest upset came earlier in the afternoon in the top half of the draw, though in the context of Cilic’s return to the tour after months away, it was not such a surprise. He was beaten by the 30-year-old former top-10 player Juan Monaco, whose ranking suffered last year due to hip problems. Monaco arrived here from a final run in Buenos Aires, on his favourite clay, and looked the better player throughout his 6-4, 6-4 win.
Monaco will now try his luck against the 18-year-old rising star from Australia, the tall and explosive Thanasi Kokkinakis, who beat the No23 seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3. The young Aussie also won his opening doubles match here—with Murray.
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