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Todd’s Tennis Takes – Indian Wells Preview

         Two months into the season comes one of the biggest events of the year – Indian Wells. All the best men & women arrive in the Southern California desert to play at a top notch facility and earn some big ranking points, prize money, and recognition before April comes and the clay court season begins in earnest.

For the men, it all starts with Novak Djokovic, who started off 2013 by winning his 4th Aussie title and then won Dubai for the 4th time as well just last week, beating Del Potro & Berdych in the semis and final, his 36th career ATP title. He’s been #1 for 18 weeks in a row, 71 weeks total (11th all-time), and has made the finals of 8 of the last 10 grand slams, winning 5 of them. He needs only a title at Roland Garros for the career slam, and if he takes Indian Wells this year (lost to Isner in semis a year ago), it’ll be his 3rd I.W. title after hoisting the trophy in 2008 (def. Fish) and 2011 (def. Nadal). He was runner-up in 2007 (l. to Nadal). He’s currently on an 18 match winning streak dating back to the year-end championships last November, his last loss coming to Querrey in round 2 at the 2012 Paris Masters.

The Contenders                                                                                        World #3 Andy Murray, Djoker’s opponent in the Aussie final, would seem to be the next favorite (he beat Federer in the Aussie semis), but he hasn’t played since the Down Under slam.  He now has a slam title of course, beating his Serbian rival in the US Open final last year, and was literally inches away from being up a set and a break against him at this year’s Aussie. He was up 7-6, 1-0 with Novak serving at 0-40. Novak earned the first break point save, but on the second, Murray missed an easy shot wide that would have given him the break…and maybe all he needed for his 2nd straight slam.  Murray has 25 titles to his name, 21 of them on hard courts, but none at I.W., his best result being a runner-up finish to Nadal in 2009 (an ugly 6-1, 6-2 loss). Surprisingly, he’s failed to win a match the last two years in the desert, losing to Donald Young in 2011 and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez last year – both in straight sets! Roger Federer, now 31 and #2 in the rankings, is still battling the big boys, but with not as much success as during his heyday. It took him 5 sets to dispatch Tsonga in the Aussie quarterfinals before losing in the semis 6-2 in the 5th to Murray. He lost to Julien Benneteau at Rotterdam in the middle of last month, and then in the semis at Dubai last week, Berdych saved 3 match pts in the 2nd set tiebreaker before beating him 6-4 in the 3rd. Berdych also took him out at the 2012 US Open, a 4 set quarterfinal victory. But Fed is the defending champion here, beating Isner in last year’s final for his 4th I.W. crown – he won three straight from 2004 to 2006.  Rafael Nadal, now ranked 5th, is back after a 7 month layoff to deal with knee tendonitis. He’s played three small South American events, all on clay, to ease back onto the tour – winning the last two but losing to Horacio Zeballos in the finals of the first – Vina Del Mar, Chile. He’s made the finals in the desert the last 3 odd numbered years, winning in ’07 and ’09 but losing to Djokovic in 2011. This will be his first big test since being out, playing off his favorite surface and with a full field of the best players. A semifinal or better result would have to be considered a success. Finally, Tomas Berdych has played very well since the 2012 US Open began, including two wins over Fed and three over Tsonga in that stretch, one of them in the finals at Stockholm last October, his 8th career title. He hasn’t made it past the QFs here though, and only once made it that far – in 2010 where he then lost to Nadal. He’s #6 in the world now, a career-best, and at 27 years old, might be playing his best tennis yet (though he was a 2010 Wimbledon finalist, beating Fed in the QFs, Djoker in the semis).

2nd Tier Contenders                                                                                       Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gets the nod over Del Potro and Ferrer as the favorite in this tier, having won Marseille (def. Berdych) last month and battled Fed tight in the Aussie QFs this year, losing 6-3 in the 5th. He also seems due to for a Southern California desert breakthrough, having never advanced beyond the Round of 16 here. Juan Martin Del Potro has only played here 4 times, but already has 2 QF appearances and one semi result, losing only to the best – Nadal in the QFs (2009) and semis (2011), Fed in the QFs last year. He had a disappointing Aussie, losing to surprise quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy in the 3rd round, but rebounded to take the title at Rotterdam a month later. David Ferrer, currently at a career-high #4 ranking, has lost to Djoker in the semis of the last two slams, but has had very little success at Indian Wells, having only made the QFs once in ten trips, back in 2007 (l. to Djokovic). But he does have two titles under his belt in 2013, Auckland and Buenos Aries, and lost in the finals to Nadal last week at Acapulco (ugly…6-0, 6-2). He’s a longshot to win his 21st career title here, but should be able to make his 2nd quarterfinal.

Other Dangerous Names (Best I.W. Result)                                                      Stanislas Wawrinka (QF ’08, ’11), currently ranked #18, gave Djokovic an epic battle in the 4th round of the Aussie this year (lost 12-10 in the 5th), and also made the finals of Bueno Aries (l. to Ferrer)…Ernests Gulbis (R64 ’08-’10) qualified at and then won Delray Beach last week, and was ranked as high as #21 in 2010, but has to go through qualifying again this week here (#1 seed in qualies). He has the talent and big enough weapons to do some damage, though stamina will likely be a major issue after all the tennis he’s had to play…Richard Gasquet (QF ’11) and his fabulous one-handed backhand (Wawrinka’s also supreme) comes to the desert having just won Montpellier a couple weeks ago and having made the 4th round at Australia (l. to Tsonga in 4 sets)…Nicolas Almagro (QF ’12), long known as a clay court specialist, has built a decent hard court resume the last few years, making the QFs of the Aussie this year, 4th round there 2010-12, and the 4th at the US Open last year, though all 12 of his career titles have come on the dirt…Janko Tipsarevic (R32 ’07, ’12) has made the QFs of the US Open the last two years, and 3 of his 4 career tourney wins are hardcourt titles, but he hasn’t broken through here. Ranked #9, he does have two QF appearances in Miami…Milos Raonic (R32 ’11, ’12), just 22 yrs old, is the only guy in the top 20 (ranked 17th) born in the 1990’s, but outside of great success in San Jose (won it last 3 years, including 2013) and a few 4th round slam appearances (Aussie 2011 & ’13; US Open ’12), his resume remains rather thin. His monster serve and forehand are somewhat negated by limited mobility (he’s 6’5”)…Kei Nishikori (R64 ’12) is the opposite of Raonic – a 5’10” Japanese speedburner ranked 16th. He won Memphis this year (3rd career title), and made the QFs of Australia a year ago, but lost in the 4th this year to Ferrer, and it wasn’t close. Nishikori won his first title at just 18 yrs old, beating James Blake at Delray Beach in 2008…Marin Cilic (R32 ’09, ’11) showed a lot of promise in making the Aussie semis in 2010, but has basically stalled out since then. He did make the QFs of the US Open last year (only slam QF since ’10 Aussie) and has won a few smaller titles as well, including Zagreb this year (def. Melzer in final).

The Americans                                                                                                  You may have noticed something all the above players have in common – none are Americans. Yes, it’s a rough time for American male tennis, as the lumbering John Isner, still ranked 15th, has dipped sharply since tantalizing last year with big Davis Cup wins and his finalist appearance in the desert. Since reaching the US Open QFs in 2011, he has lost in the 3rd, 2nd, 1st, and 3rd round at subsequent slams in 2012, and missed the Aussie this year with an ankle injury. Just last week he had a golden chance to face Gulbis in the Delray Beach final, but lost to journeyman Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the semis. He turns 28 next month, a full two years older than both Murray and Djokovic, and a year older than Nadal. He is not going to carry the US torch very far…Sam Querrey is a nice player, ranked 23rd and holder of 7 career titles. But while more mobile than Isner, at 6’6” he’s not mobile or athletic enough to hang with the big boys, as shown at this year’s Aussie in the 3rd round when he was soundly beaten by Wawrinka in 3 sets…Mardy Fish (ranked #32) had a career year in 2011, finishing 8th in the world, but 2012 was a nightmare of disappointing losses and injury, and at age 31, his best days are surely behind him…Ryan Harrison at 6’0” is far shorter and more athletic than Sammy Q and Isner, but has failed to make much progress since wowing fans at the 2010 US Open (great 2nd round match vs. Sergiy Stakhovsky). He’s still ranked just 73 and has had no luck at all in his grand slam draws, but losing matches like his last three won’t help him boost his ranking to avoid high seeds early at slams (all 1st round losses: Benjamin Becker, ranked 61, Lukasz Kubot, ranked 81, and finally Daniel Munoz De La Nava, ranked 154 at Delray last week). The only good news is he doesn’t turn 21 until May 7th…Finally, the feel-good Brian Baker (#56) story of 2012 had a rough start to 2013 as he tore his lateral meniscus in the 2nd round of the Aussie this year. As it is, he’s the same age as Isner and probably has a ceiling of 30th or so anyway, if he’s able to come back strong from this at age 28. Sadly, outside of 34 year old Michael Russell (#70) and 33 year old James Blake (#99), that is it for Americans in the top 100. Not a lot of promise…and very little on the horizon (though Harrison’s little brother Christian did push Gulbis to 3 sets before losing in qualifying here. He turns 19 in late May.)

So there you have it, a preview of Indian Wells as well a glance at the state of men’s tennis these days. Enjoy the tourney.

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