As the finals of the season’s first major non-major loom, the two #1s eye the last obstacles in their quest for the prestigious Indian Wells crown.  Can the challengers spring an ambush, or will the top seeds receive their just deserts?

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark celebrates a point against Maria Sharapova of Russia during the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 18, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Wozniacki vs. Bartoli:  Hunting her second straight Premier Mandatory title, the world #1 has won 25 consecutive matches in the WTA’s elite tier of Premier Mandatory and Premier Five tournaments.  But the last player to defeat Wozniacki at such an event was the quirky Frenchwoman who will oppose her in Sunday’s championship match.  On a sweltering afternoon in Cincinnati, Bartoli swept the Dane aside with the loss of only five games as her double-fisted groundstrokes darted through that fast court at unpredictable angles.  A former Wimbledon finalist, Wozniacki’s challenger prefers such swift surfaces to unleash a game that relies less upon point construction than first-strike shot-making, highlighted by a splendid second-serve return.  In addition to attacking the Dane’s second serve, the Frenchwoman must control her own delivery more consistently than she did late in her semifinal against Wickmayer, allowing her to start points inside the baseline on offensive terms.  Once a rally extends beyond seven or eight shots, the balance of power tilts sharply towards Wozniacki.  Against an opponent who anticipates an opponent’s gambits extremely well, Bartoli should consider reversing the direction of her shots and hitting behind the Dane in order to keep her physically and mentally off balance.  Especially considering an illness that descended before her quarterfinal, she probably will need some assistance from the world #1 in order to deliver the upset.

And Bartoli conceivably might get that assistance.  In the final here a year ago, Wozniacki sprayed a disconcerting quantity of groundstrokes throughout the court as she slumped to a straight-sets loss against the unintimidating Jankovic.  Just as in her recent losses at majors, she appeared to struggle with the magnitude of the situation, although the Dane won a gritty three-setter from leading rival Zvonareva for the Beijing title last fall.  Moreover, Indian Wells has earned notoriety for capriciously crowning underdogs such as Hantuchova and Zvonareva, victors over Hings, Kuznetsova, and Ivanovic in previous finals.   Nevertheless, scant evidence suggests that the historical trend will continue this year.  On a moderately paced hard court not unlike the Indian Wells arena, Wozniacki yielded just two games to Bartoli in a Doha semifinal.  Although the Wimbledon finalist moves more effectively than one might suspect at first glance, she requires greater time to unleash her double-fisted groundstrokes than would a more conventional player.  The alert Wozniacki should seize the opportunity to slip inside the baseline whenever she notices that her opponent takes one hand off her racket.  More adroit moving laterally than forwards, Bartoli often struggles when brought to the net on her opponent’s terms, a flaw that Wozniacki might consider exploiting.  Whereas feeding balls deep down the center of the court frustrated Sharapova, though, the top seed will want to keep the Frenchwoman constantly moving in order to drain her illness-depleted energy.

Unlikely to receive full validation as a world #1 until she wins a major, Wozniacki nevertheless could cement her position atop the WTA by capturing the most significant title of her career so far.  An upset by Bartoli conversely would confirm the impression that the top titles women’s tennis lies open to any talented opportunist.  A precocious 20-year-old, Wozniacki should shoulder the pressure upon her with the maturity of a seasoned contender.

Rafael Nadal Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates his victory over Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina during the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 19, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Nadal vs. Djokovic:   Whereas the women’s #1 arrives in the final as the considerable favorite, her male counterpart appears a slight underdog in his championship match.  Sharper against the reinvigorated Del Potro than in his previous encounters here, Nadal probably must elevate his performance even further in order to derail the momentum of the Serbian juggernaut.  Having not lost a match since November, Djokovic brings an unblemished 2011 record and six victories over top-10 players into his third final in the California desert.  Despite losing all eleven of his clay and grass meetings to Nadal, the Australian Open champion has collected seven straight-sets victories over the world #1 on hard courts against only five losses.  In a gallant effort against the Spaniard in the US Open final, Djokovic saved swarms of break points on his serve through three fiercely contested sets before finally succumbing to fatigue from his classic semifinal victory over Federer.  Even threatening the Spaniard on his beloved dirt, the Serb relentlessly takes the Mallorcan bull by the horns with fearless swinging volleys and a barrage of inside-out forehands that sets up his inside-in forehand or unparalleled down-the-line backhand.  En route to the Indian Wells title three years ago, Djokovic hammered his targets with relentless precision and never lost his serve during a comprehensive semifinal triumph that avenged his loss in the final here a year earlier.

On the other hand, Rafa has won all of his most significant encounters with Nole, including all five of their finals and all of their meetings at majors.  When the stakes and the tensions rise highest, therefore, Nadal remains the sturdier competitor with a greater appetite for the battle.  Unable to decapitate both heads of the Fedal hydra at the US Open, Djokovic has not conquered the two legends consecutively since his breakthrough at the 2007 Rogers Cup.  Rafa has prevailed on each of the six occasions when his meetings with Nole have extended beyond the minimum number of sets, a tribute to his generally superior focus and fitness.  If Djokovic charges into an early lead, therefore, he must deliver the coup de grace rather than slipping into complacency and permitting his opponent to claw himself into the match.  Like his fellow #1, Nadal will relish the relatively slow courts at Indian Wells that favor a counterpuncher’s ability to track down penetrating groundstrokes and return them with interest.  As he demonstrated in the 2009 final, furthermore, his game adapts more smoothly to the desert’s variable weather conditions than those of rivals who rely more heavily on precision.  Uncharacteristically unreliable against Karlovic in the quarterfinals, Nadal’s passing shots sparkled on Saturday against Del Potro.  When Djokovic attempts to finish points in the forecourt, as he must in order to succeed, the Spaniard often will force him to hit complicated volleys or smashes.

Whether the Serb or the Spaniard suffers a reverse on Sunday, the Indian Wells runner-up could find swift consolation.  In the past two seasons, Murray and Roddick captured the Miami title after disappointment in the desert final.  We return shortly to preview the draws at the tournament after reviewing some of the more intriguing narratives from Indian Wells.

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