More than a month after the action climaxed in Melbourne, all of the leading ATP and WTA contenders reconvene for the first time.  On the eve of Indian Wells, we ponder a few intriguing narratives that the first marquee non-major of 2011 might trace.

Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray - ATP World Tour Finals - Day Seven

1) Déjà vu for Nadal and Murray? In 2010, the world #1 entered the California desert rusty from an injury that halted his Australian Open campaign in the quarterfinals.  Frustrated in that round for the second straight year, Nadal returned this weekend to record an encouragingly commanding performance in Davis Cup.  As the clay season beckons, the two-time Indian Wells champion will seek to recapture his rhythm with a deep run on these slowest of all hard courts, but a title may lie a round or two beyond his grasp.  Also reprising his Australian Open result from 2010, Murray will hope to avoid a relapse into the malaise that beset him for months after his deflating loss in last year’s Melbourne final.  An equally dismal reverse in this year’s final perhaps contributed to a one-sided defeat against Baghdatis in Rotterdam, although the Scot blamed a wrist injury.  A former runner-up in the desert, Murray should flourish there if his psychological scars from Melbourne have healed.

2) How long can Djokovic and Soderling maintain their momentum? The two most successful ATP players during the first two months of 2011, the Serb and the Swede have compiled a shimmering 30-1 record with five titles.  Undefeated so far this season, Djokovic has scored five of his twelve victories over top-10 opponents, while Soderling has won four of the last six tournaments that he has entered and brings a ten-match winning streak to the desert.  Advancing within a set of last year’s final, he can project his power convincingly  even on sluggish surfaces, and the event’s relaxed atmosphere should suit his straightforward, plain-speaking nature.  But Soderling volunteered for Davis Cup duty on an indoor court in his distant homeland this weekend, raising questions about his readiness for the year’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  By contrast, Djokovic cautiously chose to spend the week replenishing his energies in preparation for perhaps the most demanding month on the calendar.  That decision seems more likely to reap rewards than Soderling’s commendable patriotism.

3) Will Clijsters and Wozniacki battle for supremacy? Since Wimbledon last year, the two genial blondes have divided every meaningful WTA tournament between them.  Clijsters has collected the three most significant titles in that span, the two majors and the year-end championships, while Wozniacki has rampaged through the Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments with the exception of Cincinnati—won by Clijsters.  Curiously, the WTA’s current top two have collided only once during their joint dominance, collaborating on a compelling although not quite classic final in Doha.  Seizing two previous titles on the sun-bathed California hard courts, Clijsters suffered an embarrassing early exit there in 2010 for which she will aim to atone.  One would welcome a title clash between the top two women, arguably more plausible than a meeting between the top two men.  A bubbling cauldron of flux lately, the WTA could benefit from the birth of a mini-rivalry at its summit.

4) Can the last two WTA champions rekindle their desert magic? Grasping a trophy for the first time in more than a year, Zvonareva delivered a composed, confident statement of intent in Doha that triggered memories of her courageous 2009 title run at Indian Wells.  When mentally resilient, the Russian possesses a mixture of versatility, intelligence, and consistency that should shine on the slow courts and in the occasionally odd conditions here.   Likewise well-adapted to the desert’s demands are the counterpunching tactics of Jankovic, who broke free from a seven-month arid spell with consecutive semifinals in the Persian Gulf.  As her competitive vigor floods back, the memories of last year’s implausible surge could inspire the defending champion to ambush an unwary victim or two from the WTA elite.  Few players have exploited opportunities more effectively than the seasoned Serb, and few tournaments have provided more openings for opportunists.

5) Which draw will feature more surprises? Always a stage for the unexpected, Indian Wells featured an epidemic of eye-catching results last year.  The 2011 edition may prove no more predictable than its 2010 predecessor, since several bold shotmakers in both draws prepare to wreak havoc within the hierarchy.  In addition to the revitalized Del Potro, four Australian Open sensations could launch memorable runs.  Soderling’s Melbourne nemesis Alexander Dolgopolov showed few signs of ebbing during the South American clay season, while San Jose champion and Memphis finalist Milos Raonic could serve his way to a noteworthy upset.  The first woman to win multiple titles this season, Petra Kvitova engineered victories over Stosur, Pennetta, and Clijsters that showcased her competitive maturity.  Although fading a bit recently, Andrea Petkovic illuminated Australian arenas with a Brisbane finals appearance and a comprehensive Melbourne triumph over Sharapova, punctuated by her signature post-match shuffle.  Will the Petko-dance debut in the desert?

5+1) Who will profit from Ellison’s investment? Alone among all tournaments, Indian Wells features the Hawkeye challenge system on every court where balls are struck, a contribution from tournament sponsor Larry Ellison.  It’s only a matter of time before the Oracle CEO becomes the favorite entrepreneur of an unheralded journeyman (or journeywoman) toiling in obscurity on an outer court.  We hope that other venues follow Ellison’s example in expanding their deployment of electronic review, a resource that all players deserve.

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open Day 12

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