Cameron Norrie and Daniel Evans: That was then but this is now at Indian Wells

Kyle Edmund was only seeded Briton in last IW men’s draw in 2019; now it is Norrie and Evans

Cameron Norrie
Cameron Norrie (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

It seems an eternity since the cream of tennis converged on one of the most spectacular venues in the sport, the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

In sporting terms, of course, two and a half years can be an eternity at this elite level of competition: One setback can result in months, sometimes years, of effort to try and make it back.

Add into the mix the long shutdown of the tour—and Indian Wells was the first to pull the plug—due to the global coronavirus pandemic, with tough travel and quarantine conditions that continue even now in some quarters, and there have been distinct shifts in ranks.

A look back at the last playing of the BNP Paribas Open on the outskirts of Palm Springs tells a little of that story. Not a single former champion will line up among the 96 men in the draw, with five-time champion Roger Federer, three-time champion Rafael Nadal, and five-time champion and world No1 Novak Djokovic, plus defending champion Dominic Thiem, all on the withdrawal list.

Joining them will be four more men who were among the top 20 seeds back in March 2019: Marin Cilic, Borna Coric, Milos Raonic, and David Goffin.

Instead, a slew of fresh faces have, in those two and a half years, marched their way up the list. Since Thiem broke through in Indian Wells in 2019, nine of the 14 Masters-level tournaments have been won by men not named Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.

Six of the current top 10 are age 25 and under, and four of them have Masters titles, two are Major champions, and three more are Major finalists.

Among these big-title winners are more young players edging to career-highs via consistently strong results. Andrey Rublev, who won five titles last year, made two Masters finals this season, won Rotterdam and, with Daniil Medvedev, the ATP Cup, will compete for another final in San Diego this weekend. He is at a career-high No5.

Casper Ruud, the first Norwegian to break into the top 10, is just 22, a former No1 junior, and won four clay titles in little more than two months this summer. He has made two semis and two quarters as the four Masters so far played this year, and is also in the San Diego semis.

So with many big names on the side-lines not just in Indian Wells but for the rest of the year, the Race to the World Tour Finals is taking on a new look. Djokovic tops the list, of course, but with Nadal withdrawn from contention, the next nine are in that 25-and-under bracket. And remember: the last four ATP Finals have enjoyed debut champions.

Cast the net a little wider in the Race, and a British man appears on the horizon, one who has taken the longer path up the ranks. Cameron Norrie, born in South African to British parents, moved as a teenager to London to train at the National Tennis Centre, living with a host family, before heading on a scholarship to the Texas Christian University, where he became the top-ranked male player in the US. But after almost three years, he put his studies on hold to turn pro and accept a wild card into his first Major, Wimbledon, in 2017.

He went on to play his first Indian Wells main draw in that most recent 2019 edition, losing in the first round. By then, though, he had reached his first final, plus the semis in Acapulco, so while he was barely inside the top 100 at the start of the season, he was up to 48 by Indian Wells. However, he was beaten by the then teenager, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is now in close contention for the Turin finale.

In the smaller Masters, however, Norrie was still having to battle through qualifying, and after the Covid lockdown, he was a little slower into his stride than some. Come 2021, though, and Norrie finally got traction with two finals on clay and then a third in front of his home crowd at Queen’s, where he narrowly lost out to Matteo Berrettini.

A month on, and he broke his duck to win the title in Los Cabos, and break inside the top 30. Now, with a 40th match-win to reach the semis in San Diego, he is up to No15 in the Race. A title run would take him to No12—No11 if the absence of Nadal is taken into account—though Norrie’s path to the full 250 points this weekend is paved by top seed Rublev, and then possibly Ruud, who faces Grigor Dimitrov in the other semi.

Yet Norrie has been picking off some big names this year, including Thiem, Cilic, Aslan Karatsev, Fabio Fognini, Karen Khachanov, Christian Garin—and Dimitrov. More particularly, in San Diego, he beat Wimbledon semi-finalist and world No13 Denis Shapovalov, 6-3, 6-1, for a second time, sweeping 10 of the last 11 games, and that after wins over Kevin Anderson and compatriot Daniel Evans.

But whatever the result, Norrie will have the benefit of a seeding come Indian Wells, though he must surely be hoping that the draw is kind to him. After all, he could get the short straw, wild card Andy Murray, much sooner than he would like.

The last time Murray played in Indian Wells, in 2017, he was world No1. But injury has since decimated his ranking and result, and two major bouts of hip surgery later, he continues the battle to regain something like his old form.

He lost to Ruud in the second round in San Diego after reaching the quarters in Metz last week, but still hovers just outside the top 100, as does Kyle Edmund, who was seeded at the last Indian Wells.

Since then, Edmund’s fortunes have also taken a dive as knee injury became surgery, which translated into no matches for 12 months.

So yes, the picture after 30 months is very different in Indian Wells, not least with the arrival of an older and wiser Evans. The now-31-year-old Briton missed a year from mid 2017, but certainly found renewed purpose following his ban. So low was his ranking at the start of 2019 that he had to qualify for Indian Wells, where he had the misfortune to draw Stan Wawrinka in Round 1. Evans put up a formidable fight against the Swiss, though, and a year later, he was inside the top 30 and the highest ranked British man.

This year, he has won his first title and reached his first Masters semi, so like Norrie, Evans will be seeded in Indian Wells, though his up-and-down form is unlikely to see him in the reckoning for Turin.

But for now, he will surely also be crossing his fingers against a premature meeting with Murray.

Norrie plays Rublev tonight in San Diego not before 10pm UK time.

Indian Wells begins on Monday next, 4 October, with women’s qualifying. Men’s qualifying start on Tuesday, women’s main draw on Wednesday 6, and men’s main draw on Thursday 7 October.

Paul Scholes
Paul Scholes rates Chelsea FC’s Premier League title chances
Michael Owen
Michael Owen predicts the scoreline of Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Gary Neville
Gary Neville: ‘We know what’s coming’ ahead of Man United v Liverpool FC
Gabriel Martinelli
‘We sometimes forget’: Mikel Arteta reveals his Arsenal plans for Gabriel Martinelli
Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool FC may rival Man United for France midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni - report
Paul Scholes
Paul Scholes rates Chelsea FC’s Premier League title chances
Michael Owen
Michael Owen predicts the scoreline of Arsenal v Crystal Palace
Gary Neville
Gary Neville: ‘We know what’s coming’ ahead of Man United v Liverpool FC
Gabriel Martinelli
‘We sometimes forget’: Mikel Arteta reveals his Arsenal plans for Gabriel Martinelli
Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool FC may rival Man United for France midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni - report
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature