Indian Wells preview: Will Federer and Djokovic contest title again?

Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, where Novak Djokovic is defending champion

roger federer
Roger Federer triumphed in Dubai earlier this month Photo: Marianne Bevis

As in so many other places on the tennis merry-go-round, Roger Federer is a record holder at one of the best Masters tournaments in the world, Indian Wells.

Most titles? Federer with four. Longest tournament streak? With back-to-back titles from 2004 to 2006, 18. Longest tournament stretch? He has played every year since 2001, making 2015 his 15th straight appearance.

But even Federer’s most avid fans may not have expected that, after such a history in California, he would be back, still ranked No2 in the world and with as good a shot at claiming the title again as any.

Yet since those heady days of a three-title run a decade ago, Federer’s is not the only familiar name in the frame in this indigo-and-green oasis set against the Santa Rosa mountains.

Arch rival Rafael Nadal was the first to break the Federer stranglehold in 2007, beating the man who would go on to share the limelight with the Spaniard until the present day, Novak Djokovic. The Serb would win the following year, beat Nadal to the title in 2011, and beat Federer to the title last year. Nadal also garnered three titles, winning in 2009—over the fourth in tennis’s big quartet, Andy Murray—and in 2013.

This year’s draw, then, holds all three previous champions who, as so often before, top both rankings and seedings: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. At No4 is Murray, who has yet to win in Indian Wells but is fourth among active Masters winners. For of the last 43 Masters tournaments, these four have won 39.

Despite their dominance in the rankings, though, this is the first time that ‘the four’ has filled the top four seedings in a Masters event for almost three years, setting up the prospect of tennis’s popcorn semi line-up between Australian Open finalists Djokovic and Murray and one of this sport’s most famed and charismatic rivalries, Federer and Nadal.

Yet aside from each hoping to make a statement of intent and form in this first Masters of the nine that punctuate the calendar, there are other milestones.

For Federer, of course, there is extending his record of titles but also reaching 50 Indian Wells match-wins: He stands at 47-10.

novak djokovic

Novak Djokovic is the defending champion at Indian Wells Photo: Marianne Bevis

Djokovic is targeting his 50th career title, while Murray is just four wins from overtaking Tim Henman’s British Open-era record of 496 match-wins. Murray needs seven to reach the 500 land-mark.

So as usual, this ‘fifth Grand Slam’ does not just boast the finest backdrop to a tennis tournament in the world, nor the biggest prizes, nor the fullest draw—96 players and 32 seeds—but also the best possible line-up of players.

Eighteen of the top 20, 46 of the top 40, are here, and most of the top men are treating the half-million fans to double the pleasure by opting into the doubles draw, too: Federer with old friend Michael Lammer; Nadal with Pablo Carreno Busta; Murray with Thanasi Kokkinakis; US Open champion Marin Cilic with Juan Martin del Potro; Milos Raonic with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi; Stan Wawrinka with Lukasz Kubot; David Ferrer with Fernando Verdasco.

So will the big guns steal the Indian Wells thunder again, or will the next generation, which has pressed into the top 10 in the last year, make its breakthrough? Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov all have the potential.

Or will this be the year that new faces cause the big upsets, as some teenagers have begun to do over the last six months or so? Nick Kyrgios and Borna Coric have both beaten Nadal, with the latter also beating Murray in Dubai.

In short, will the first Masters of 2015 throw open the gates to a whole new set of winners, or will history repeat?

Potential seeds missing from main draw: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No13); Gael Monfils (No18); David Goffin (No21); Leonardo Mayer (No27)

NB Mayer replaced by Lucky Loser Daniel Gimeno-Traver

Seeding beneficiaries: Andreas Seppi, Jeremy Chardy, Bernard Tomic

Previous champions: Novak Djokovic (three time and defending); Roger Federer (four time); Rafael Nadal (three time)

Other Masters titlists in draw: David Ferrer (Paris 2012), Stan Wawrinka (Monte Carlo 2014)

Novak Djokovic quarter

If the defending champion and world No1 Djokovic is to treat Indian Wells to a rematch of the Australian Open final against Murray, he has a mix of veteran experience and enthusiastic youth to get through, ending in the quarters, if the seedings work out, against the only man with three titles to his name so far this year, the evergreen, ever-ready Ferrer.

Djokovic could open against Marcos Baghdatis or the tall and talented 21-year-old Jiri Vesely, who won his first title in Auckland in January. His first seed is old-hand Julien Benneteau, while the fourth round should bring the survivor of the tall servers, John Isner and Kevin Anderson. Isner lost to Djokovic here in the semis last year, and has struggled to discover the same form so far in 2015.

Ferrer, though, has his work cut out, especially with 18 match-wins under his belt already this season. And Ferrer’s form at Indian Wells is not encouraging: He has won only a single match in his last four visits.

His first seed is the in-form Bernard Tomic, into the seedings courtesy of a late surge in the rankings and the loss of players ahead of him, and he pushed Ferrer hard in their recent three-set Acapulco meeting. Tomic has one of the most intriguing openers, though, if Coric makes it through his first match: a potential face-off between two men tipped as teenagers for the top.

Ferrer’s scheduled fourth-round match is also interesting: US Open champion Marin Cilic makes his 2015 debut after suffering shoulder injury, and will be thrown in at the deep end in his section with Juan Monaco, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and hugely talented teen Kokkinakis. Cilic is also playing doubles, so clearly wants to test that shoulder, but it’s hard to see him going deep so soon.

Quarter-final: Djokovic beats Tomic

Andy Murray quarter

Since reaching the Australian final, Murray’s form has been up and down: he made unexpected exits in the quarters of both Rotterdam and Dubai. But now reunited with Amelie Mauresmo, and on the back of Davis Cup success, he should reach at least the quarters—though there, Nishikori will be an undoubted test. Just the week before Indian Wells, Nishikori was, in fact, No4 in the rankings.

Before then, Murray could have a tough opener against Vasek Pospisil if the Canadian beats Mikhail Kukushkin. Murray should have no problem against his first seed, Philipp Kohlschreiber, who has only three match-wins from six events this year. Murray should then meet the winner between the hot-and-cold duo of Fabio Fognini and Ernests Gulbis—a near-impossible call—but the big-serving Sam Groth may well beat Gulbis before that.

Nishikori’s section is tricky, with a first match against the winner between home players Ryan Harrison or the returning Mardy Fish, who is playing his first match since the summer of 2013. Harrison beat Dimitrov in Acapulco, but this will be an emotional opener for him.

Nishikori’s seeds are Verdasco, followed by either Feliciano Lopez at a career-high No12 or Pablo Cuevas, also at a high of 23. But the Japanese man is on a 16-3 run this season, with the title in Memphis and a final finish in Acapulco, plus wins over Pospisil and Raonic in Davis Cup. He is, in short, in great form.

Quarter-final: Nishikori beats Murray

Rafael Nadal quarter

After a slow start to the season as he worked his way back to fitness from injury and appendicitis, Nadal began to find his confidence on his beloved clay in South America, and arrived in Indian Wells with the Buenos Aires title. But he has beaten only one top-20 player this year, Anderson in Australia, so this will be an important test for the state of the former champion’s game.

Fortunately, for a man who likes to build a head of steam, the draw starts well against either Igor Sijsling or qualifier Filip Krajinovic. His first seed is No31 Jeremy Chardy, and he then cranks up to another French challenge between either Richard Gasquet or Gilles Simon. The latter is enjoying something of a resurgence this season, winning Marseille and reaching the semis of Rotterdam, but he arrives from a gruelling run in Davis Cup, and Gasquet, the Montpellier champion, has owned him in previous encounters.

The other segment holds No11 Dimitrov and No6 Raonic, lined up for a cracking fourth-round face-off. Both have testing openers, though, with Dimitrov possibly taking on charismatic Australian quarter-finalist Kyrgios and Raonic playing the survivor of in-form Simone Bolelli or Thomaz Bellucci.

Quarter-final: Dimitrov beats Nadal

Roger Federer quarter

Whether or not Nadal reaches the semis, and possible 34th meeting with his biggest rival, Federer will have to survive some tough, big-hitting opposition to reach the same stage.

Federer first has the huge Jerzy Janowicz or Diego Schwartzman before a potential rematch with Seppi, who beat him in the Australian Open third round. In the third round here could be the big-serving, in-form Gilles Muller or Roberto Bautista-Agut, before a quarter-final against one of several big men.

Tomas Berdych has a tough draw through Sergiy Stakhovsky or Sam Querrey followed by Ivo Karlovic, then the winner between Lukas Rosol or, more likely, Wawrinka. And the fourth-round challenge between the Swiss and Berdych promises much if their previous contests are anything to go by.

Whether it is Berdych or Wawrinka who sets up a possible Federer quarter-final, it should be gripping. Wawrinka’s three matches against his compatriot last year were all close-run affairs and their last meeting here in 2013 went 7-5 in the third set.

The same is true of Berdych: His last two meets with Federer, both in Dubai, went to three sets, splitting the wins. However, Federer played fine tennis to win there a fortnight ago and that form could set up a repeat final with Djokovic.

Quarter-final: Federer beats Wawrinka

Final: Djokovic beats Federer

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