Turning the Corner: Twelve Questions for the Week Ahead in Indian Wells

See you again next year? Same place, (almost) same time?

In the early stages of a draw as large as Indian Wells, more questions often are asked than answered as we learn just enough to know what we don’t know—and what we want to know.  Here are twelve burning questions to ponder while the core of the tournament approaches.

1.      Will Federer and Nadal meet for the first time in a year?

For the first time since their rivalry took flight, the archrivals did not clash on clay or grass last season.  By placing them in the same quarter, the draw gods have done their best to ensure that they will meet at Indian Wells for the second straight year.  Especially promising is Federer’s path, for only Ivan Dodig and the winner of Hewitt vs. Wawrinka stand between a Swiss star who looked crisp in his opening demolition of Denis Istomin.  Nadal’s route looks generally benign as well on paper, but the surging Ernests Gulbis could pose a severe test if he can keep up the form that has carried him through his longest winning streak ever.

2.      Will Azarenka and Wozniacki meet for the first time in two years?

The two BFFs last faced each other on this court in 2011, when Wozniacki held the #1 ranking and Azarenka faced serious questions about her physical and emotional durability.  How times have changed since then.  Now, Wozniacki must field questions about her continued relevance as a contender, while Azarenka has become the face of the WTA’s new generation (albeit not always the face that the WTA would want).  What makes this potential quarterfinal between the last two Indian Wells champions intriguing is Wozniacki’s former control of their rivalry, which seemed not so much technical as psychological.  Still undefeated this year, Vika looks nearly certain to reach that rendezvous if she can keep injuries at bay.  Chronic nemesis Goerges still might intercept Caro, as might a revived Petrova.

3.      Can Berdych take care of business?

As if the weakest quarter in the men’s draw needed to get any weaker, Kevin Anderson upset the only serious threat to the Czech in David Ferrer.  With his route to the semifinals wide open, Berdych need not worry about anyone more dangerous than Gasquet.  The Frenchman does happen to be rather dangerous at the moment, granted, since he has won two (small) titles this year and should prosper on the slow surface.  But Berdych also has enjoyed a consistent season to date, so his superior weapons leave him in control of his own destiny.

4.      Can Sharapova take care of business?

Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino.  Sara Errani.  Marion Bartoli.  None of these potential pre-semifinal opponents ever has defeated Sharapova, and only once has any of them threatened her.  That occasion did come recently at last year’s US Open, when Bartoli won the first set before Maria stormed back.  All the same, the 2006 champion should overwhelm the Spanish journeywoman in the fourth round and rely on her dominance over those rivals to reach a third straight semifinal in the desert.  Even without her best form against a top-25 opponent, Suarez Navarro, she eased through in straight sets by—as usual—growing more aggressive rather than less when the match could have tilted in either direction.

5.      Should Murray’s fans be concerned?

After an easy third-round assignment, the competition will get stiff for the Scot as Nishikori and Del Potro loom.  With those obstacles ahead, Murray would have benefited from a strong and efficient start to the tournament, but he didn’t get it in a three-set scare against Evgeny Donskoy.  While the Russian has plenty of talent and ambition, he is not the sort of player expected to trouble one of the Big Four.  Anybody and everybody has troubled Murray here recently, though, for he dropped seven consecutive sets at Indian Wells between a 2010 quarterfinal and the first set of his  opener here.  Hangovers from Australian Open disappointment have hampered him emotionally in those appearances, so his body language will bear watching if more sustained adversity arises.  That said, he matches up extremely well to Nishikori and Del Potro, neither of whom ever has defeated him on a hard court.

6.      Should Radwanska’s fans be concerned?

The sun of Indian Wells usually has not shone brightly on Radwanska, usually more successful at the tournament’s sequel in Miami.  But her draw looks more comfortable than it often does, or at least it did until she toiled for two and a half hours to suppress Sorana Cirstea in the third round.  The type of player whom Radwanska tends to dismantle with ease, the erratic yet powerful Romanian hit through her surprisingly often considering the court speed and her defensive skills.  Radwanska also twice failed to serve out the match in the third set once she had reversed the momentum, a strange lapse for someone who has established herself as a fine competitor over the last eighteen months.  Her next two projected opponents, Kirilenko and Kvitova, have spelled trouble for her at significant events before.

7.      Which Novak will show up?

This question would have sounded ridiculous a set and a half into what looked like a humiliating rout of Fabio Fognini.  When Djokovic threw away the second set and did not immediately reassert himself in the third, some eyebrows raised over this extended lapse.  Also suggesting competitive fatigue was a minor altercation over a time violation warning that he received.  Djokovic is not nearly as dangerous a player when his head is not in the right place, and early signs of trouble historically have spelled trouble later in the draw.  If the man who smoothly struck every shot in the book during the first set returns, however, he will remain the title favorite.  Djokovic may have time to collect himself, for his next two opponents do not look intimidating, nor did quarterfinal foe Tsonga in his convoluted victory over Blake.

8.      Which Petra will show up?

Always a woman of two sides, Kvitova brought her bad version to the Australian hard courts and her good version to the Persian Gulf.  As remarkable as it sounds, the same woman who won two games from Cibulkova one month came within two games of knocking off Serena (and demolished Radwanska) the next.  More of a lamb than a lion in March recently, Kvitova showed some of both extremes in a three-set victory over the pedestrian Govortsova and a third-round battle with a qualifier that nearly reached a third set as well.  She can contend for the title as convincingly as anyone, especially with her past success against Azarenka, but every opponent whom she faces should enter that match knowing that they have a chance.

9.      Can a former US Open champion prove himself (again)?

When he knocked off Nadal and Federer in succession to win the 2009 US Open, Del Potro looked like the next big thing for the ATP.  He still could be, but the odds of his becoming one of his generation’s great champions grow slimmer with every season since his wrist surgery in which the Big Four and even players like Ferrer throttle him.  One of the few men who has won a major but not a Masters 1000 tournament, Del Potro may need to walk before he can run.  In the peaceful environment of Indian Wells, where he has produced strong results before, he should take heart from the early frailty displayed by Djokovic and Murray.

10.   Can a former US Open champion prove herself (again)?

Compared to Stosur’s recent results, those of Del Potro look positively brilliant.  The 2011 US Open champion has not won a title since that miraculous breakthrough against Serena, and winning a single match lay beyond her abilities early in 2013.  Unlike most players who win a major, the Aussie drew no fresh confidence from her achievement.  The good news is that she finally has strung together a few victories in her recent tournaments, and a commanding victory over Keys showed form that could prove good enough to carry her through the weakest quarter in the women’s draw.  When she last faced Azarenka at the US Open, Stosur extended her to a third-set tiebreak.  Who knows what could happen in a semifinal against her if she accumulates some momentum before then?

11.   Who will be the last American man standing?

There are two candidates left at this stage:  Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey.  Both find themselves uncomfortably close to Djokovic, never  a good place to be.  Fish is just grateful to have started to play matches again after his health scares, and anyone who believes that Querrey can become the next great American champion probably just clicked on an email from Nigeria.  That said, the Californian deserves credit for surviving the elephantine serve of Ivo Karlovic, and it will be intriguing to see how he handles bearing the mantle of the top-ranked man from a nation frustrated with its tennis underachievement.

12.   Who will be the last American woman standing?

Well, let’s take a look at the options.  There’s Stephens and,…oh, she lost already?  Anyway, there’s Keys, who…she’s gone too?  Maybe Christina McHale with…hmm, Kirilenko came back?  Time to do a Ctrl+F for USA on the women’s draw.

1 match.  Jamie Hampton.


Enjoy the rest of the tournament, and feel free to suggest answers for questions 1-11 in the comments.