Indian Wells 2019 preview and factfile: Djokovic, Nadal, Federer dominate in desert
But amid shifting rankings, the Serb remains untouchable at No1
With the defending champion Juan Martin del Potro missing from the draw this year, the biggest and, judging by the votes of the players themselves, the best Masters of the year has a very familiar look.
Since Roger Federer won the first of his five titles at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in 2004, only three players have managed to get their hands on the trophy—barring a certain Ivan Ljubicic, now retired and coaching Federer: The Swiss, and his two greatest rivals, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
Remarkably, 15 years on, these champions are still three of the top four ranked players in the Indian Wells draw. And that leaves two big questions hanging in the clear, dry air of the Californian desert.
Will the spoils again go to one of these remarkable, and remarkably dominant, men, and if so, to which one? And if not, is it at last the turn of one of the bright new stars to take over the mantle?
Well, not judging by recent Indian Wells results or those of the other big tournaments. For while each man has suffered injury set-backs during the last three years, each has produced quite exceptional comebacks, each winning multiple Majors and Masters, each rising back to No1.
Comebacks of former champs: Federer; Nadal; Djokovic
In early 2016, it was the oldest of the trio, Federer. After the Australian Open, he had the first surgery of his career, missed Indian Wells, and played just five tournaments before pulling out of the season after Wimbledon. But from a ranking of 17 at the start of 2017, he won two Majors, three Masters—Indian Wells among them—and two 500s, and went on to win the Australian Open again last year. He was back at No1 by the time he again made the final at Indian Wells.
Later in 2016, it was Nadal. A wrist injury forced him to withdraw from the third round at the French Open, and he too would play just five more tournaments that year. And he too would return in Australia reinvigorated, and rise from No9 to No1 by the time he won his second Major of the year at the US Open: Two Majors, two Masters, two 500s. Last year, he was hit by more injuries, more absences—including Indian Wells—as knee and hip problems cut his schedule after the US Open. His clay run had been enough to regain the No1 ranking, but that was about to change as the third man came up on the rails.
In that same year, 2016, the youngest of the trio, Djokovic, was top man. He completed his Slam with Roland Garros after winning Australia, plus four Masters—and that after winning 11 titles in 2015: Three Majors, six Masters, and the ATP Finals. He was No1 for those entire two years, but now it would be his turn to face injury and a ranking slump.
He did not play the second half of 2017 due to an elbow problem that would persist into 2018, forcing surgery after Australia. By Rome, and on into the grass season, he had turned a corner, halted the six-win Major run of Federer and Nadal, inevitably replaced them at No1, now holds three Major titles, and has won 45 of his past 49 matches.
Djokovic: clear water at the top; favourite for more records
It is hard to believe Djokovic was ranked 22 just nine months ago, and even harder to comprehend the margin he now holds at the top—more than 2,500 over Nadal, and more than 6,000 over Federer. And while Nadal has no points to defend until his 1,000 at Monte Carlo, Djokovic has only 155 to defend until mid-May. Who knows what kind of margin he will have by then.
But it is not just in rankings that Djokovic has milestones to reach. With victory in Indian Wells, he will draw level with Nadal’s current record 33 Masters titles. And he will outstrip Federer’s joint record of five Indian Wells to grab a sixth.
To help him on his way, he opens against a qualifier, but his Round 3 match jumps off the page. Nick Kyrgios leapt into the No31 seeding with a stunning run in Acapulco last week to beat three top-10 players. It was Kyrgios who beat Djokovic in Indian Wells two years ago, too, but how much does the 23-year-old firebrand have left? Probably not enough for the fresh Djokovic.
Round 4 may bring another man of supreme but unpredictable talent, Gael Monfils, who won Rotterdam then made the semis in Dubai, a 12-3 start to 2019. The same question applies, however, and Monfils has a formidable opener against the 6ft 11ins winner of New York, 21-year-old Reilly Opelka.
The quarter-finals throw in Borna Coric and Dominic Thiem, with No3 seed Alexander Zverev—lately a finalist in Acapulco—scheduled for the semis. Zverev, though, will have plenty of challengers in a particularly strong, young quarter.
And what Djokovic has avoided is a clash with Federer in the semis: The Swiss fell into Nadal’s half.
Federer’s rocky road
Not only does Federer have final points to defend—and he will need to banish memories of three lost match-points in that final against del Potro—he faces the prospect of one of the toughest unseeded men in the draw, his friend Stan Wawrinka, the man he beat to claim the 2017 title, in the third round.
Indeed Federer needs to put on points if he is to keep the chasing pack at bay. Kei Nishikori and Kevin Anderson have only to go deeper than Federer to overtake him, and Thiem, John Isner and Stefanos Tsitsipas can also all overtake him if they win the title.
Wawrinka, finalist in Rotterdam, looms after either Andreas Seppi or Peter Gojowczyk, though he first has to play the in-form Brit Dan Evans before No26 seed Marton Fucsovics—who incidentally, is at a career-high after testing Federer in Dubai.
Nishikori and Cilic are potential quarter-final opponents for Federer, but before that are Kyle Edmund or Fabio Fognini, with dangerous Frances Tiafoe and Delray Beach champion Radu Albot unseeded floaters.
And what of Tsitsipas and the other rising stars?
The charismatic Greek has well and truly made his mark in the last year, won his first title in Stockholm in October, his second in Marseille a fortnight back, and reached the final in Dubai. He also made his first Major semi, via Federer, in Australia, and has become the standard-bearer for a slew of young challengers.
Into the top 10 for the first time, he is already 15-5 for the season, and an explosive performer who relishes the big stage. Zverev may be only 21 and have Masters titles to his name already, but Tsitsipas promises to follow suit very soon in a quarter full of similarly youthful ambition.
No23 seed Alex de Minaur won in Sydney and 20-year-old Ugo Humbert was semi-finalist in Marseille and winner of the Cherbourg Challenger this year. Teenager Felix Auger-Aliassime made the final in Rio, and he faces a fascinating opener against 23-year-old Cam Norrie, finalist in Auckland and semi-finalist in Acapulco, also at a career-high 48.
Among their older challengers are the resilient Roberto Bautista Agut, Anderson, and former Indian Wells finalist Milos Raonic.
Nadal brings up the rear in decent quarter
It is the quarter containing the most qualifiers and packed with fellow 30-somethings. And Nadal cannot face a top-100 player until his first seed, No25 Diego Schwartzman, who he has beaten in all six previous meetings. The more intriguing match might be in Round 4, a first with career-high Daniil Medvedev, winner in Sofia, last four in Rotterdam, and the final in Brisbane. The young Russian may first have to beat David Goffin.
Nadal’s quarter-final could produce one of those older men, the unseeded but in-form Tomas Berdych, 12-5 this year, who plays fellow veteran Feliciano Lopez in his opener. This segment of six over-30s is topped by Isner, who has scored three straight semi-finals before Indian Wells but has never beaten Nadal.
Draw overview, top half
Djokovic vs Thiem: also here, Kyrgios, Benoit Paire, Coric, Opelka, Monfils
Zverev vs Anderson: also here, de Minaur, Tsitsipas, Auger-Aliassime, Grigor Dimitrov
Draw overview, bottom half
Federer vs Nishikori: also here, Shapovalov, Cilic, Wawrinka, Edmund, Evans, Fognini
Nadal vs Isner: also here, Ernests Gulbis, Berdych, Karen Khachanov, Medvedev
Former champions in draw: Novak Djokovic (five), Rafael Nadal (three), Roger Federer (five)
Former finalists in draw: Federer (+ three), Nadal (+one), Djokovic (+ one), Wawrinka (one), Raonic (one), Isner (one)
2018 semi-finalists: Federer beat Coric, del Potro beat Raonic
Indian Wells/Miami ‘Sunshine Double’: Djokovic (four), Federer (three)
Potential seeds missing: del Potro (defending champion), Richard Gasquet, Fernando Verdasco
Career highs this week in main draw:
Daniil Medvedev (14),
Marco Cecchinato (15)
Guido Pella (33)
Radu Albot (50)
Reilly Opelka (55)
Jaume Munar (56)
Mackenzie McDonald (58)
Champions this season so far, hard courts:
Roberto Bautista Agut (Doha)
Kei Nishikori (Brisbane)
Kevin Anderson (Pune)
Alex de Minaur (Sydney)
Tennys Sandgren (Auckland)
Novak Djokovic (Australian Open)
Radu Albot (Delray Beach) (check qualies)
Roger Federer (Dubai, + ITF Hopman Cup)
Nick Kyrgios (Acapulco)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Montpellier) (not playing IW)
Daniil Medvedev (Sofia)
Gael Monfils (Rotterdam)
Reilly Opelka (New York)
Stefanos Tsitsipas (Marseille)