In the beautiful Californian garden in a desert, things have been less than perfect for big-name seeds such as Nick Kyrgios, Kei Nishikori, and Dominic Thiem, all unable to begin or complete their matches due to injury or sickness.
Some of the biggest stars in tennis did not even make it to California: Rafael Nadal injured, Stan Wawrinka still not fit from knee surgery, and Andy Murray lately undergoing hip surgery. All left a big hole.
The long-awaited return of five-time champion Novak Djokovic was all-too-short: Still far from match-sharp, he lost his opener to an on-fire opponent. Big-time favourites such as No3 seed and World Tour Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov, No4 seed and two-time Masters champion Alexander Zverev, and No9 Lucas Pouille, here with a title and two finals from his last four events, also failed to get beyond their first matches.
Another clutch of seeds, and big men, literally, failed to make their allotted third round target: John Isner, Gilles Muller, and Tomas Berdych.
And across the board, 14 seeds did not make it to the last 32.
But there did remain a few very big men, and some of them with good reason to believe they could go deep in the desert, if recent form was anything to go by.
No2 seed Marin Cilic, 6ft 6ins and in fine form, was the one among them who knew what it was to win both a Major and a Masters. The Cincinnati champion in 2016 and US Open champion in 2014 reached the final of Wimbledon last July and Australia this year. So while Indian Wells had not been a happy hunting ground for the Croat, with nine wins for 10 losses, perhaps he could turn that around this year.
Not that his second match was a foregone conclusion: the No31 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber is gifted, nimble and unpredictable, and the 34-year-old brought a 6-4 advantage over Cilic to the table. Yet when he arrived at his 13th straight Indian Wells, he had won just two matches from five tournaments. Could he go one better than his last three visits, third rounds all, and equal his best fourth round showing?
It quickly became apparent that this was one of Kohlschreiber’s good days, the kind that produced one of the matches of 2017 against Murray in Dubai, the kind that produces big swinging serves, that sweeps a one-handed backhand wide to impossible angles, slices and dices, and picks holes in the biggest of opponents.
The German broke in the third game, fought off break points in a seven-minute hold for 4-2, and held to love for the first set, 6-4.
The second set was tight, and while Cilic tried to up his aggressive tactics, and made far more winners than Kohlschreiber, he was run ragged by precision depth and angle, forced into errors, and suffered the key break in the seventh game.
And the German did not let his big man off the hook: He served it out with more pinpoint serving, 6-4.
Kohlschreiber has not made a Masters quarter-final since 2010, but this year, his path to the last eight was opened up by the retirement of Gael Monfils against the 93-ranked Pierre-Hugues Herbert, his next opponent.
No6 Juan Martin del Potro, also 6ft 6ins, found himself in a similar position to Cilic, facing a veteran player only just inside the seedings but with his own formidable reputation and results behind him, No29 seed David Ferrer. These two stood at 6-6, but the ever-formidable del Potro was sailing into something like his old form, and beat Ferrer on his way to the Auckland final and to the Acapulco title.
Just 18 months ago, the big Argentine, a Major champion in 2009 and a former No4 in the rankings, was outside the top 100 after seesawing fortunes following repeated wrist surgeries. He rejoined the top 10 for the first time since 2014 at the start of the year, but faced some tough draws. Indian Wells was no different, even with the loss of Muller and Isner from his quarter.
But while the much-admired del Potro was a finalist in Indian Wells in 2013, he had yet to add a Masters title to his resume. With so many big names out of contention—and Cilic out of his quarter—was this the big man’s opportunity for a title run?
Ferrer had struggled with from for a year or more, driven down the ranks and out of tournaments with a persistent foot injury. There were signs that this most driven of men was perhaps heading back to some kind of form in Auckland, until stopped by del Potro, came painfully close to beating Andrey Rublev in a five-set marathon in Australia, and was a set up against del Potro in Acapulco. But he could count only one win in his last four events, and was immediately up against it in Indian Wells.
Ferrer had already saved six break points by the time he held for 2-1 in the first set, was finally broken in the seventh, and del Potro served out the set, 6-4, despite failing to convert 15 out of 16 break points.
The second set was desperately close: Indeed the two men ended with 36 points each. And it would be Ferrer who worked the only break chance in the eighth game, but it was swiftly snuffed out, and it would eventually take a tie-break to separate them.
Thus far, del Potro’s serving had, not unusually, been the more powerful, but Ferrer maintained 12 from 14 on both his first and second serves.
Alas for the Spaniard, that was not ideal for a tie-break, and sure enough, del Potro opened an immediate lead, 4-0. Ferrer edged to 3-5, but would not score another point under the weight of the Argentine’s serve and forehand, 7-6(3).
So the big man continues to play big tennis into a fourth-round contest against compatriot Leonardo Mayer, ranked 47, who put out qualifier Taro Daniel, 6-4, 6-1. He will, as he has always been when fully fit, a feared opponent no matter the size of the opposition.
In the other quarter, the formidable 6ft 5ins figure of the Canadian, and 2016 Indian Wells finalist, Milos Raonic took on the 85-ranked Joao Sousa, who was the next highest-ranked remaining man in an eighth made up by qualifier Marcos Baghdatis and lucky loser Dudi Sela.
Raonic has also had his share of injury problems, and as a result the former No3 was the lowest seed in the draw, and still working back to fitness. This was only his sixth match of the year, and he was targeting only his third win. And Sousa certainly had his chance to deny the Canadian. He served for the first set, only to be broken twice: 7-5 to Raonic. Sousa levelled, 6-4, but the Raonic serve was improving in potency all the time, and he broke twice to seal the win, 6-2.
But only time would tell whether another big man, 6ft 6ins No18 seed Sam Querrey, would also make it through against Indian qualifier Yuki Bhambri.
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