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Before shifting to preview the Miami draws, we reflect upon some of the more memorable events at Indian Wells.  Not a comprehensive recap, this article merely sketches the storylines that most piqued our interest during the last week.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

First among equals:  Confirming what the first two months of 2011 already had suggested, Djokovic established himself as the leading challenger to Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP.  For the third consecutive tournament, the Serb decisively defeated Federer despite a generally solid and occasionally splendid display from the 16-time major champion.  When he progressed through the early rounds, moreover, the craven performances of his victims evoked the same defeatist attitude with which opponents approached Federer at his peak.  Just as he cruised past the former world #2 in the final set of their semifinal, Djokovic dominated the world #1 in the third set of their championship match and extended his hard-court record against Rafa to 8-5.  Defeating the two legends on consecutive days for the first time since 2007, the Serb responded to adversity with a mental resilience rarely seen in his formative period.  Although he did not quite maintain his lofty level from Australia, the new #2 heads to Miami on a 20-match winning streak that includes seven victories over top-10 rivals.  With his serve, fitness, and confidence soaring higher than ever, the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double seems well within range unless his weary knee falters.

With the most notable title of her career to date, Wozniacki weathered sporadic stumbles against Kleybanova and Bartoli to collect her fifth consecutive Premier Mandatory or Premier Five trophy.  In the absence of the Williams sisters, Henin, and perhaps Clijsters, few foes can hit through the Dane’s dogged defenses or outlast her consistency.  (While Zvonareva springs to mind, the Russian has fallen well short of matching Wozniacki’s poise under pressure on grand stages.)  Surely destined to break through at the majors, the world #1 has remained unruffled despite the heightening scrutiny and expectations surrounding her.  More confident in her status than other Slam-less#1s, the self-assured Dane has the physical and mental durability to sweep the North American spring events.  But she still could fall prey to an exceptionally inspired shot-maker, such as a Li or a Kvitova on their brightest days.

Spaniards:  Coming within a few games of a 19th Masters 1000 shield, Nadal can consider this week an encouraging yet tentative step forward following his injury-enforced absence.  While the world #1 defeated no opponents in the top 50 en route to the final, few should underestimate the ability of Karlovic or the resurgent Del Potro to unsettle a top seed.  Rafa deserves credit for delicately navigating past those unnerving obstacles, but he will rue the uncharacteristic avalanche of unforced errors that reversed his momentum against Djokovic on Sunday.  Also concerning was Nadal’s struggle to deliver his first serve, resulting in a crushing sequence of four consecutive breaks between the second and third sets from which he never recovered in scoreline or spirit.

On the other hand, Nadal fared considerably better than his two most prominent compatriots.  Ferrer looked thoroughly perplexed by Karlovic in his opener, and Verdasco continued a desultory 2011 campaign with a limp, unfocused loss to Querrey.  A less renowned member of the Spanish Armada, Robredo counterbalanced those disappointments with an unexpected quarterfinal run that included a dual triumph over both Querrey and a painful leg injury.

Americans:  A ray of hope for this tottering tennis power, the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison stunned not only the experienced Garcia-Lopez but the recently incandescent Raonic.  Relishing his fierce competitive zeal and his authoritative returns, we also appreciated his precocious talents in more subtle areas such as a respectable backhand slice and crisp forecourt reflexes.  In an engaging clash with Federer, Harrison showcased all of those qualities in a gallant effort that bodes well for his future.  Meanwhile, Querrey scored the strongest victory since the US Open by upsetting Verdasco in two relatively routine sets.  And Donald Young capitalized upon the opportunity to score a massive upset, triggering speculation that he may yet break free from what has seemed terminal underachievement.

Amidst this optimistic trend were discouraging performances by Isner and Roddick, whose 16-3 record this season does not reflect his pedestrian play (although he still owns the shot of the year so far in the Memphis final).  Scheduled to defend championship points in Miami, the top-ranked American will descend swiftly if he continues to fluff second-serve returns on set points and uncork double faults in tiebreaks.  Harrison’s emergence has come none too soon, one senses.

Belgians:  Far from surprising was the presence of a Belgian in the women’s semifinals.  But few would have guessed that Wickmayer rather than Clijsters would have carried her nation’s banner to that stage.  While the injury to the Australian Open champion raises broader questions about her season, Wickmayer ‘s gritty victories over Kanepi, Cibulkova, and Peer hinted that she may have awakened from a dismal slump during the second half of 2010.  Self-destructing in the semifinals against Bartoli, this natural athlete could rise even further if she can control her perfectionist streak and prevent minor mid-match setbacks from spiraling into meltdowns.  Also filling Belgian fans with pride this week was veteran Xavier Malisse, who accompanied Dolgoopolov in an eventful journey to the doubles title built upon the bones of the Bryans, the Murrays, the Indo-Pak Express, and Federer/Wawrinka.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Doubles:  Usually relegated to the least desirable courts and times, the sport’s poor cousin took center stage (often literally) after Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Ivanovic, Jankovic, and a host of other heralded singles stars entered the doubles draws.  Spectators starved of the Federer-Nadal rivalry seized the opportunity to see them engage in a light-hearted doubles semifinal, while WTA fans enjoyed the chance to watch three top-10 players take the court simultaneously when Schiavone and Stosur collided with Azarenka and Kirilenko.  From the success of these cameo appearances emerged once again the superiority of singles players to their doubles counterparts and the relative insignificance of teamwork compared to sheer talent.  While Nadal and Marc Lopez dispatched the fourth-seeded Polish duo of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski, Federer and Wawrinka overcame the second-seeded pairing of Mirnyi and Nestor.  In the women’s draw, the unlikely combination of Jankovic and Pavlyuchenkova conquered world #1s Dulko and Pennetta.  Despite the discomfiture of leading doubles teams, however, doubles itself gained a significant boost in visibility during the tournament, including screentime on national television following the women’s semifinals.

Double-fisters:  Not among the sport’s most elegant stylists, Bartoli and Peng carved through their sections of the draw as much with fortitude as with timely shot-making.  Steadier under pressure than her quarterfinal and semifinal opponents, the Frenchwoman dragged world #1 Wozniacki into a third set despite suffering from illness.  While Bartoli returned to the top 10, Peng continued her eye-opening 2011 campaign with three consecutive three-set victories, two over seeded players.  Although a fourth three-setter proved just beyond her reach, the Chinese double-fister recorded her finest performance at an event of this significance by reaching the quarterfinals at the expense of Petrova and Li.  Armed with fewer weapons than Bartoli, Peng shares the Frenchwoman’s mental relentlessness as well as her opportunistic streak.

Entombments:  Winless since the Australian Open semifinal, Murray failed to win a single set at the season’s first Masters 1000 tournament.  Hampered by a wrist injury in February, the Melbourne runner-up veered between passivity and impotent frustration during an ignominious loss to Donald Young, who collected only four games from Robredo a round later.  On the other hand, at least the Scot did not sink quite to the abyss inhabited by Stosur during a loss to Safina in which the Russian hit 16 double faults and nevertheless won in straight sets.  Flinging a smash several feet over the baseline on match point, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up missed routine forehands and service returns throughout this ghastly encounter.  Whereas Murray can wallow in self-pity until Wimbledon without adverse consequences, Stosur must reassemble her confidence much sooner.  With a heavy forehand and kicking serve that shine on clay, the Aussie still has a legitimate chance to win the Roland Garros crown if she can halt her recent skid.

Resurrections:  Accelerating in momentum with every week that passes, Del Potro vaulted himself to the threshold of the top 50 with victories over defending champion Ljubicic, Dolgopolov, and Kohlschreiber.  The 2009 US open champion unleashed his forehand with progressively greater confidence as the tournament unfolded, even freezing Nadal at times in a creditable semifinal defeat.  Also thriving in the relaxed atmosphere of Indian Wells was the enigmatic Gasquet, who looked fitter, fresher, and more focused than he has since 2007.  A round after thrashing world #10 Melzer, the ATP’s most spectacular one-handed backhand dominated Roddick for a set and a half before briefly faltering when he stood on the verge of victory.  The familiar, diffident version of Gasquet would have allowed that stumble to ruin his confidence, but instead he regained his composure and played a commanding tiebreak concluded by—what else—a balletic backhand winner that barely clipped the baseline.

Yet perhaps the most surprising and noteworthy revival of the week occurred in the  women’s draw, where former #1 Safina launched an unexpected charge through three opponents.  Overcoming two-time champion Hantuchova, Marat’s sister displayed flashes of the imposing backhand and the combative spark that defined her tenure at the top.  Against world #4 Stosur, the Russian participated in one of the worst matches of the women’s season (see above) but still found a way to win the most important points, including the potentially tense first-set tiebreak.  Thoroughly outgunned by Sharapova a round later, Safina nevertheless should take immense reassurance from this week as she heads to Miami and a potential second-round meeting with Zvonareva.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Glamor girls:  In one of her most impressive results since shoulder surgery, Sharapova reached the final four of this Premier Mandatory event and stands within range of rejoining the top 10.  Rusty from a February illness, she required three hours to maneuver through her opener but then bludgeoned Rezai and Safina while losing just six total games.  Although her erratic play resurfaced against Peng, Sharapova demonstrated elevated confidence by surmounting a wayward serve, windy conditions, and an obdurate opponent.  Having fallen to Zheng in similar circumstances last year, she avoided an encore by trusting her shots to scorch the lines when it mattered most.  Mitigating these encouraging portents was a loss to Wozniacki in which the three-time major champion evinced a listlessness almost as odd as Nadal’s error-strewn collapse in the final.  After a sprightly, fist-pumping beginning, the three-time major champion looked resigned to defeat when the momentum turned against her rather than showcasing her fabled steeliness.  On the other hand, one disconcerting evening should not outweigh the sequence of successes that preceded it.

On the other side of the draw, Ivanovic more than doubled her victory total for the season by recapturing traces of the magic that propelled her to consecutive Indian Wells finals in 2008-09.  Under Djokovic’s watchful eye, she defused the dangerous Kimiko Date-Krumm in her opener, an accomplishment that she may need to repeat in Miami.  Two rounds later, the smiling Serb confronted compatriot and defending champion Jankovic, who had won their two previous meetings during Ivanovic’s slump.  Clenching her fist and twirling in joy with each swinging volley or forehand winner, Ana reasserted her dominance over the intra-Serbian rivalry during an emphatic victory.  Perhaps too spent from that cathartic triumph to muster sufficient energy on the following day, Ivanovic nevertheless can reflect with satisfaction upon a week that banished many melancholy memories of the last two months from her mind like clouds from the cerulean California sky.

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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.

Juan Martin Del Potro - BNP Paribas Open

Nadal vs. Del Potro:  Reaching the semifinals or better at four consecutive American tournaments, the 2009 US Open champion has progressed more swiftly in his comeback from wrist surgery than we had expected.  Without the luxury of first-round bye, Del Potro received a welcome respite when quarterfinal opponent Tommy Robredo offered him a walkover.  Appearing somewhat jaded during his two-tiebreak victory over Kohlschreiber in the preceding round, he now has the opportunity to replenish his energy for what should become a highly physical encounter.  While dropping his first four meetings to Nadal, including a limp quarterfinal at this event’s 2009 edition, the Argentine looked intimidated and tentative against such a fiery competitor as the Spaniard.  Without warning, the momentum in their rivalry then swung sharply in the opposite direction when Del Potro rallied from a double-break deficit in the third set of a Miami quarterfinal to ambush Rafa in a tiebreak.  That stunning comeback branded itself upon Nadal’s psyche and left scars that reappeared in the Argentine’s emphatic victories later that summer, including a 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 annihilation at the US Open.  Just as Del Potro once had looked uneasy and uncertain against Rafa, Rafa began to waver and tremble under the assault of the Tower of Tandil.

But the Tower of Tandil has not quite towered over the opposition in his comeback as he did during that memorable US Open campaign.  Falling to Verdasco in San Jose and Roddick in Memphis, Del Potro struggled to hold serve and to unleash his fabled cross-court forehand with the fearlessness that he possessed before his surgery.  While he merits praise for outlasting inspired opposition here such as Dolgopolov and Kohlschreiber, players whom he might have dispatched routinely in 2009 have dragged him into arduous battles.  On the other hand, Nadal has not ascended to his customary heights in his first four matches.  Perhaps uninspired by three consecutive qualifiers in the first three rounds, Rafa barely solved the riddle of defusing Karlovic’s serve on Thursday.  Twice within two points of a stunning upset, the Croat tested the Spaniard’s composure with every ace that crashed through the court.  Although Nadal ultimately prevailed, he betrayed his ruffled emotions by missing a few more first serves and passing-shot attempts than he typically would have.  Can he rediscover his poise against a recurrent nemesis who will offer him much more rhythm from the baseline?  This semifinal should open a window onto Nadal’s confidence and Del Potro’s fitness, both physical and mental.  While Rafa should earn his revenge, the Argentine will gain considerable momentum from this tournament if he can prove his ability to once again challenge the ATP elite.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

Djokovic vs. Federer:  Dueling for the #2 ranking, these supernovas have collided repeatedly since mid-2010 and thrown sparks into the tennis universe on almost every occasion.  The only player to whom Federer has lost this year, Djokovic took the GOAT by the horns at each of the last two majors in contrasting fashions.  Winning all five of the sets that he has contested with the Swiss in 2011, the Serb not only outserved him in Melbourne and Dubai but won the majority of their forehand-to-forehand battles, a trend that the current #2 must reverse in order to regain the momentum in their rivalry.  Rather than hammering away at Djokovic from the baseline, however, Federer should consider varying the pace and height of his shots in order to destabilize his opponent’s rhythm.  Pursuing those tactics early in the second set of their Australian Open semifinal, he abandoned them once he arrived in a commanding position and watched his fortunes fade thereafter.  Typically reluctant to concede any weakness, Federer may recoil from admitting that he can project less power from the baseline than can Djokovic at this stage in their respective careers.

Despite advancing to the semifinals without dropping a set, Federer looked fallible at times against Andreev and Harrison, both of whom forced him into tiebreaks.  By contrast, few players reach the semifinals of a Masters 1000 event with a record more spotless than Djokovic’s sweep through his first four matches, losing 12 total games and breaking his opponents in 20 of 29 return games.  Less auspicious for the Serb is an ailing knee that required a trainer visit early in the second set of his quarterfinal victory over Gasquet.  Trailing by a break in both sets against the Frenchman, Djokovic deserves credit for recovering rapidly from those lulls and gathering his focus before the momentum slid too far towards his opponent.  Nevertheless, Gasquet looked unconvinced (probably correctly) that he could threaten the third seed, who thus never found himself under significant pressure.  Such a situation does not describe a clash with an adversary surely more motivated than ever to assert his command over a rivalry that he once dominated.

While Djokovic should have ample motivation to wrest the #2 ranking from Federer’s grasp, the Swiss superstar may not burn with equal determination to retain it.  As he once remarked in an interview, only the #1 position matters for a competitor at his vertiginous height.  Moreover, these Masters 1000 events probably spur the Serb more than the Swiss, who has not won a hard-court Masters 1000 event outside Cincinnati since 2006.  Regularly shining on the fast surface there, Federer may find the slow courts at Indian Wells less to his liking as his consistency wanes.  On the other hand, he remains the only player in either the ATP or the WTA to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, a feat that will infuse him with even more inspiring memories than those of the 2008 champion.

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Will Roger and Rafa meet at Indian Wells for the first time in their careers, or will Djokovic face Nadal here for the third time in the last five years?  Or will the long arms of Del Potro reach out to intercept the favorites and snare his maiden Masters 1000 shield?  Spectators should eagerly anticipate two Saturday semifinals that feature the four players who have won every major title since Roland Garros 2005.

 

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia plays Aravane Rezai of France during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 14, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Blondes:

Sharapova vs. Wozniacki:  A virtual final, this marquee semifinal nearly did not happen and would not have happened had not Sharapova flashed a glimpse of the fortitude that has formed the foundation for her three major titles. Serving at 2-3, 15-40 in the third set of her quarterfinal, the statuesque Siberian looked deflated after a commanding lead had slipped away from her.  At that crossroads, though, the three-time Slam champion gritted through three break points and unleashed three consecutive winners to hold serve.  Battling to break point on Peng’s serve a game later, Sharapova then raced desperately across her baseline to toss up a lob that drew a match-turning error from her opponent.

As her once-seismic serve has faded, Sharapova often has shone more brightly during return games in her comeback.   This pattern of wavering serves and dismissively lethal returns has continued here, where she has broken opponents on 28 of 46 service games while struggling at times to find the rhythm with her own delivery.  Nevertheless, Maria cannot rely upon maintaining that ratio when she confronts Wozniacki, a sturdy albeit not overwhelming server.  Advancing anticlimactically with Azarenka’s retirement, the world #1 will punish Sharapova for any of the extended lulls into which she fell against Medina Garrigues and Peng.   Poised closer to the baseline in her recent tournaments, the Dane should maintain that position and display plenty of positive body language, thus physically asserting herself against an opponent who relies upon imposing herself through weight of shot and weight of personality.  Armed with more consistent technique and greater versatility, Wozniacki should aim to feed the Russian deep groundstrokes down the center of the court.  When stretched wide along the baseline, Maria not only can pinpoint a variety of angles but also recognizes that she must unleash a mighty, terminal blow.  Such clarity of mind allows her to swing with greater conviction and fluidity, whereas she often grows tentative and wooden when lured into a vertically oriented rally.

As she did in their US Open confrontation, Sharapova likely will pull the trigger when the hint of an opportunity first presents itself.  Either too respectful of Wozniacki’s movement or too unsure of her own consistency there, she seemed rigidly determined to deny her fleet-footed foe a second life in a rally and consequently crossed from aggression into recklessness.  On that occasion, Sharapova doubled the Dane’s winner count while tripling her unforced-error total.  The Russian likely will dominate in both of those categories once again, for her groundstrokes clear the net by a much lower margin and flirt much more brazenly with the lines.  One expects to see electrifying winners and egregious errors fly from the Russian’s racket in equal proportion.  Meanwhile, Wozniacki should calmly pursue the Aristotelian ideal of moderation in all things, a style more suited than Sharapova’s raw ferocity to these slow courts where the world #1 seeks a second straight final.

Novak Djokovic - BNP Paribas Open

Backhands:

Gasquet vs. Djokovic:  Fresh from the first pair of consecutive top-10 victories in his career, the Frenchman has telegraphed a resurgence that began with a handful of creditable performances in Melbourne and Dubai.  An aesthetic pleasure to contemplate when at his best, Gasquet never has fulfilled and probably never will fulfill the potential that once inspired commentators to dub him the “baby Federer.”  Yet he will continue to stir anxiety in the minds of leading contenders for years to come, possessing an uncanny timing and instinctive touch that often left his victims here frozen behind the baseline or floundering towards the net.  Fitter and more focused than he has looked in years, Gasquet displayed impressive durability by capturing the majority of the extended rallies that he has played in the desert.  On the other hand, the Frenchman’s mind still can fail him under pressure, a flaw that Djokovic probably can exploit more effectively than did Roddick or Melzer.

The Serb has advanced to the quarterfinals with farcical ease, extending his winning streak to 17 consecutive matches while dropping six total games to his three opponents.  While his confidence clearly soars as high as it ever has, those routs owed as much to the desultory performances of Djokovic’s opponents as to his own prowess.  Considering the lack of resistance, one wonders whether he will enter potential meetings with Federer and Nadal a trifle untested and complacent.  Among the most compelling narratives of this match is the contrast between Djokovic’s crisp two-handed backhand and Gasquet’s effortless one-handed flick.  The Frenchman overwhelmed Roddick in the backhand-to-backhand rallies that he staged, but he will encounter far more difficulty in breaking down the Serb’s signature shot.  Equally willing to reverse direction from that wing, these two players can generate as much offense from that wing as from their forehands, the shot around which the ATP currently revolves.

Wawrinka vs. Federer:  Surely delighted to avoid 2010 nemesis Berdych in the quarterfinals, the world #2 will relish the sight of his doubles partner across the net.  Afflicted with almost paralytic deference in many of the previous meetings, Wawrinka ignited a late-career surge last summer that propelled him to competitive performances against virtually every member of the ATP elite—except his compatriot.  Observers around the world (including ourselves, regrettably) trumpeted the Swiss #2’s emergence as a genuine contender when he dominated Roddick in the fourth round of the Australian Open one major after expelling Murray from New York.  Two days later, Wawrinka collected just seven games in three sets from a Federer a few degrees below his vintage peak.   Consequently, the momentum gained from his notable three-set victories over Davydenko and Berdych may evaporate under the desert sun when he collides with the 16-time major champion.

But Federer has scarcely resembled a 16-time major champion in two of his first three matches here, uneven performances against Andreev and Ryan Harrison in which his first serve faltered for prolonged periods and his forehand did not crackle with its usual vigor.  If Wawrinka can steel himself to view Roger as just another immensely talented but human opponent, this encounter could become a scintillating all-court battle.  Perhaps the only area in which the Swiss #2 surpasses the Swiss #1, however, is his backhand.  Whereas Federer’s one-hander has declined into a generally neutral rally shot or slice, his acolyte projects the full force of his compact physique behind his heavier, more penetrating stroke.  Before he succumbs to his compatriot’s superiority, as seems inevitable, audiences can marvel at the spectacle of a stunningly graceful shot trapped in an otherwise graceless game.

And Bartoli:

Wickmayer vs. Bartoli:  Extricated from fourth-round peril when Clijsters retired, Bartoli has seized her opportunity with both hands as she has so often throughout her career.  Once facing double match point against Jankovic in a Stanford quarterfinal, the resilient Frenchwoman dodged those bullets before ultimately overcoming Stosur and Venus en route to the title.  Could she scrip a similar narrative to claim what would rank as the most significant title of her career?  Suffering from illness in her quarterfinal, Bartoli nevertheless battled through a pair of tight sets against Ivanovic and now eyes an opponent whom she defeated twice last year.  After a thunderous start to 2010, Wickmayer tumbled sharply towards the end but should have regained ample self-belief here with a semifinal charge during which she has outlasted gritty opponents Cibulkova and Peer.  Even more combative than the Belgian is Bartoli, though, and she handled the comparable pressure of their 2010 Miami quarterfinal more adeptly.  Her experience may prove as great a weapon as the superior athleticism of Wickmayer, unless her ailing body drains her willpower.  No matter the outcome of either semifinal, the finalist from this half will enter Sunday’s championship match as a significant underdog.

Continuing our Indian Wells daily preview series, we separate the four favorites on Thursday into the punchers and the counterpunchers.  Or, in a more picturesque phrase, swords and shields.

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia pumps her fist following her victory over Dinara Safina of Russia during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 15, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.

Swords:

Sharapova:  After an uncertain opening game against Safina, the 2006 champion sharpened her focus and methodically snuffed out any ray of hope that her former nemesis might have nurtured.  Even as she marched inexorably towards the quarterfinals, Sharapova continued to level her frosty glare before each serve and inspect each adverse call.  This mental relentlessness recalled her tenure at the peak of the game, when she played each point with the same single-minded intensity without regard to the scoreline.  Against a less notable but far more sprightly opponent, the Russian will need to maintain that level of concentration as well as the spine-tingling shot-making that characterized her 28 winners in the previous round.  The three-time major champion also altered her serving stance (although not her motion) before the tournament, and she generally has controlled that shot more effectively here than for much of her comeback.

In contrast to the less mobile Rezai and Safina, Peng possesses the agility to track down and Sharapova’s skidding rockets.  Like her compatriot Zheng, her low center of gravity enables her to retrieve them more comfortably than Maria’s statuesque Eastern European opponents.  Also like Zheng, however, Peng projects little power from the service notch and must hope to protect her second serve with a high first-serve percentage.  From their previous meetings emerge little useful evidence, for Sharapova’s victory came on red clay six years ago, while Peng upset an exhausted Russian a day after she battled Azarenka for three and a half hours.  Able to absorb the pace of Petrova and Li Na, the Chinese star certainly could capitalize upon an erratic afternoon from the 2006 champion.  But Sharapova will control her own destiny for better or for worse, just as this proud competitor prefers.

Del Potro:  Having equaled his best performance in the desert so far, the Argentine tower of power shares Sharapova’s capacity to hammer groundstrokes through even this exceptionally slow surface.  His comeback has accelerated with implausible speed from semifinals in San Jose and Memphis to a title in Delray Beach and four successive victories here.  Without the privilege of a bye, Del Potro nevertheless showed little sign of fatigue during a three-set victory over Ljubicic or a two-tiebreak triumph over Kohlschreiber, when he saved five successive set points.  Will his physical and mental exertions eventually weigh upon his lanky limbs, especially when he plays for the second straight day?  On the other hand, the rusty Argentine may benefit from an injury to projected opponent Tommy Robredo, who overcame a painful leg strain against Querrey on Wednesday.  The valiant Spaniard has dispatched both of the American Cinderellas in his section, eliminating not only Verdasco-killer Querrey but also Murray-killer Donald Young.  Should he dare to take the court, one suspects that the hunter will become the hunted, for Del Potro’s massive forehand has grown progressively more ominous from one victory to the next.

Rafael Nadal - BNP Paribas Open

Shields:

Nadal:  Scarcely short of flawless in his first two victories, the world #1 displayed his mortal nature in a surprisingly complicated meeting with Indian qualifier Somdev Devvarman.  Since his draw nearly emptied of contenders within the first two rounds, Nadal could trace a tranquil route to the final.  Having slipped outside the top 200 with injuries and advancing age, Karlovic has risen from the catacombs of obscurity this week with victories over Ferrer, Simon, and Montanes.  Probably more remarkable than his unbroken sequence of service holds across eight sets was his ability to break his seeded opponents six times despite a normally woeful return game.  Nadal has likened returning the Croat’s serve to a soccer goalie receiving a kick in the stomach, and he has dropped sets to this intimidating opponent on more than one occasion.  Although the slow surface has denied Karlovic his customary avalanche of aces, he has found plentiful opportunities to stride to the net for a comfortably high volley.  Confronting the peerless passing shots of the Spaniard, that task grows significantly more difficult.  One could imagine Karlovic forcing a tiebreak or two, perhaps even slipping away a set with a little luck if Nadal fails to elevate his level from Wednesday.  When a match hinges upon a few key points, however, few players have a keener knack for capturing the moment than the world #1.

Wozniacki:  Seeking to tighten her grip upon the #1 ranking, last year’s finalist has become the clear favorite for the title following the early exodus of almost the entire top 10.  Alone among the other survivors is Wozniacki’s quarterfinal opponent, a close friend off the court and a fierce rival on it.  Perhaps as a result of their congenial relationship, their previous encounters have featured scintillating tennis only sporadically but have compensated for that flaw with dramatic suspense.  Last fall in Tokyo, for example, the world #1 thoroughly dominated Azarenka through a set and a half before the Belarussian awakened to play an inspired tiebreak and force a third set.  At that stage, Wozniacki rushed to a 5-0 lead, only to watch it nearly evaporate beneath her opponent’s assault.  Their rivalry looks likely to assume center stage after the current generation of WTA stars fade, mixing talent with glamor in the fusion beloved by the WTA’s marketing squad.

Diverging in personalities more than in playing styles, they arrived at this anticipated meeting only after rallying from one-set deficits in the previous round.  But he parallels between those comebacks stop at the surface.  Whereas Wozniacki progressively consolidated her control over a flagging Kleybanova and romped through the final set, Azarenka averted four match points against Radwanska during a match that lasted over three hours.  If the Belarussian has recovered physically from that ordeal, she may have gained psychological impetus through her brush with disaster.  Extremely fortunate to have remained in the desert for another round, she can attack her shots liberated from the tension of expectations.  In order to postpone a flight to Miami that looked imminent two days ago, however, Azarenka must curb her serving struggles and find a way to hold more comfortably than she did against Radwanska.  No serving leviathan, Wozniacki still maintains her equilibrium far more steadily than does her friend and can navigate through her service games more efficiently.  Azarenka can unveil her arguably greater potential only when she develops a similar ability.


Transmission reference: CADC102

Serbs:

Ivanovic vs. Bartoli:  Skipping to the net after a comprehensive victory over compatriot, rival, and defending champion Jankovic, Serbia’s merry maiden exuded delight with her most impressive performance of the season so far.  Now, Ivanovic must prevent her charmingly giddy mood from spilling into a winnable match against not Clijsters, her anticipated opponent, but Bartoli.  If she can preserve the focus that she displayed in her first three matches, the Serb should earn the opportunity to take control of this encounter.  Once dominant against the double-fisted Frenchwoman, Ivanovic suffered a pair of defeats against her last season before rebounding to vanquish her en route to the Beijing quarterfinals.  In a match between two players with exceptional returns, the ability to find first serves at pivotal moments will prove essential.  While Bartoli built a victory over Petkovic upon timely serving, Ana relied upon her delivery to deny several break points and propel her through multiple deuce games against Jankovic.

Perhaps a little fortunate to receive a retirement from Clijsters, Bartoli will hope to stretch Ivanovic out of position with her symmetrical groundstrokes.  The similarly flat, low, and heavy groundstrokes of Kleybanova baffled Wozniacki for a set on the same court, so the Frenchwoman could enjoy parallel success if she takes control of the points from the outset.  By contrast, Ivanovic will aim to establish early dominance over their exchanges with a mighty first blow of her own, from either the serve or the return.  Since neither player fancies elongated, grinding rallies, we should witness a sequence of relatively short, sharp exchanges that the Frenchwoman and the Serb will seek to terminate in the forecourt.  Will Ana rest content in the euphoria of Tuesday’s triumph, or will she soar from that success to another win on Wednesday?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  The second all-Serbian match in the last two days, this confrontation may test the apparent invincibility of the Australian Open champion.  Racing through a 16-match winning streak, Djokovic has lost only three sets this season—as many as he lost to Troicki in their four meetings last year.  Since the elder Serb won their first collision in 2007, his younger compatriot has reeled off seven consecutive victories but twice had to escape from predicaments against him last year.  Most notably, Troicki led the eventual US Open runner-up by two sets to one in New York before succumbing.  Denied a chance to atone for that disappointment when he retired against Djokovic in Melbourne, the world #18 will hope to capitalize upon his renewed self-belief after winning his first career title and the deciding Davis Cup rubber last fall.  On the other hand, he surpasses his compatriot in no area of the game when the world #3 produces his best tennis. Almost entirely bulletproof thus far, Djokovic may benefit from the incline in competition as the crucial rounds approach.

Serves:

Querrey vs. Robredo:  Dispatching the two highest-ranked players in their eighth of the draw, two Americans have found their paths barred by the evergreen Robredo.  Will Querrey founder on the shoals of the Spaniard’s unassuming game just as did Donald Young?  Unbroken on serve in victories over Tipsarevic and Verdasco, he possesses a far more formidable weapon in that tournament than his compatriot.  Robredo has struggled against the powerful serve of Roddick, unable to expose that American’s relative one-dimensionality.  Against Querrey, his principal advantage lies in his experience and his often more intelligent shot selection.  But he may not have the opportunity to construct rallies as carefully as he would prefer.

Roddick vs. Gasquet:  While Roddick may have won three of their four meetings, the clash that most fans remember tilted in the direction of the Frenchman.  Trailing the former US Open champion by two sets and a break in their Wimbledon quarterfinal, Gasquet suddenly sprang to life to erase the arrears with his magical shot-making.  Almost before Roddick could catch his breath, it appeared, the last of the Frenchman’s exquisite backhands whistled past him to terminate his campaign at the All England Club.  In a far more prosaic encounter, however, lies the key to how this match might unfold.  After a scintillating first set accelerated into a tiebreak, Roddick’s superior serve collected crucial points as a deflated Gasquet faded anticlimactically.

And more:

Kohlschreiber vs. Del Potro:  Following the departure of most notable names from his section, the Argentine can become a surprise semifinalist if he overcomes a German who continued his dominance over Soderling in the previous round.  Increasingly more impressive in a three-set victory over Ljubicic, Del Potro then dismissed Dolgopolov with surprising ease.  He has not faced Kohlschreiber on a hard court since 2007, well before his breakthrough, and he must beware of targeting the German’s volatile backhand in cross-court exchanges.  A recurrent dark horse but rarely a champion, the world #35 generally scores no more than one upset per tournament.  Despite the disparity between their current rankings, a win over the 2009 US Open champion probably would rank in the upset category.

Berdych vs. Wawrinka:  Once again situated in Federer’s vicinity, the second Swiss aims to extend his two-match winning streak against the seventh seed, whom he routed in January at Chennai.  While Berdych has looked imperious against a pair of overmatched opponents, Wawrinka has labored harder to earn his victories.  Narrowly escaping Davydenko after the Russian served for the match in the second set, he later erased a first-set deficit against Cilic.  No longer content to idle in Federer’s shadow, the Swiss #2 has grown more willing to take the initiative in baseline exchanges rather than trudging through wars of attrition.  Just before his Miami breakthrough last year, Berdych reached the quarterfinal in the desert and valiantly tested Nadal through a pair of tight sets.  As he prepares to defend copious amounts of points through the spring and summer, a strong result at a major event like Indian Wells would buttress his confidence.

Peer vs. Wickmayer:  A round after clawing herself past Pavlyuchenkova 7-5 in the third set, the gritty Israeli once again found herself in a marathon encounter.  Extending her uncanny hard-court dominance over Schiavone, Peer battled past the Italian in a third-set tiebreak with a dogged resilience to which her victim herself would have doffed her cap.   Yet one wonders how much energy will she bring to this quarterfinal against an opponent who can outhit her from the baseline and out-serve her from the notch.  Across the net, Wickmayer squandered a 5-1 lead in the first set against Cibulkova and proceeded through the second set less efficiently than she could have.  On the other hand, the Belgian won the two games at the end of each set and, like Peer, refused to let the points that mattered most slip away from her.  Armed with combative mentalities, neither the Israeli nor the Belgian should concede an inch with so much at stake:  a berth in a Premier Mandatory semifinal, which does not often drift in their direction.

Ana Ivanovic - BNP Paribas Open

Ivanovic vs. Jankovic:  Seeking her second straight Premier Mandatory quarterfinal, Ana eyes a tenth confrontation with her compatriot and fellow Indian Wells champion.  The Serbian stars share parallel career trajectories, having emerged almost simultaneously, crested during the same season, and receded swiftly from the circle of contenders within months of completing their meteoric rise.  While Ana rose to a higher pinnacle of accomplishments, she tumbled much more precipitously thereafter.  Victorious in six of her first seven meetings with Jankovic, Ivanovic has lost their last two encounters during a slump from which she finally emerged in the second half of 2010 with a pair of titles.  Outside their memorable meeting in a Roland Garros semifinal three years ago, both Serbs have struggled to showcase their finest tennis when they meet, perhaps because they hold so few secrets from each other.  Last year in Madrid, they contested an unsightly, break-strewn match that illustrated their uneasiness in these internecine skirmishes.

After an injury-blighted start to her 2011 campaign, Ivanovic may have restored a measure of confidence with two crisp victories in the desert where she lifted the trophy in 2008 and reached the final a year later.  Escaping from a swoon of her own that extended from last Wimbledon through the Australian Open, Jankovic has crept back into contention (or at least its environs) with three successive tournaments in which she has reached the semifinals or better.  She thus will enter this encounter with greater momentum than her compatriot, a potentially decisive factor.  On the other hand, Ana defeated her compatriot at this tournament three years ago, when both Serbs ranked in the top five.  Although Ivanovic’s best surpasses Jankovic’s best, one expects to see a level less than the best from both players on Monday.

Bartoli vs. Clijsters:  Sweeping all three of her encounters with the Frenchwoman, the four-time Slam champion ignited her second career by dispatching Bartoli in Cincinnati.  Somewhat greater drama developed when they met in New York a few weeks later, as the eventual US Open titlist rallied from a one-set deficit in emphatic fashion.  In theory, Clijsters should cruise smoothly into the quarterfinals of an event that she has won more often than any player remaining in the draw.  Compared to her double-fisted foe, the Belgian moves more smoothly, penetrates the court more consistently with her groundstrokes, and serves more effectively.  But warning bells rang when Kim conceded 13 double faults during her three-set win over Errani, suffering from shoulder pain that she revealed afterwards.  Since Clijsters noted that her discomfort increases when she reaches for high forehands, Bartoli should consider interweaving some high-bouncing groundstrokes with her trademark flat lasers.  Although one struggles to imagine her winning two sets from a healthy Clijsters on a slow hard court, the Frenchwoman reached the Doha semifinal and extended that momentum to a commanding victory over Petkovic here.

Wozniacki vs. Kleybanova:  Author of a sensational upset on this court a year ago, the Russian seeks to rekindle the magic of that victory over Clijsters.  While she won just nine games in the four previous sets that she has contested with Wozniacki, they have met only on clay and grass rather than on the surface that best suits both of their games.  Curiously, both players claimed their first career victories over opponents who previously had dominated them, Martinez Sanchez and Pennetta; Kleybanova’s victory looked especially impressive considering her crushing defeat to the Italian last month.  In the daytime conditions, Wozniacki’s high-percentage style should trump the Russian’s net-brushing groundstrokes, which rely upon more precise timing.  Unless Kleybanova can seize command of points with her imposing first serve, the Dane’s counterpunching should gradually wear down her challenger on this especially slow surface.   Instead of waging war from the baseline, Alisa should consider closing points with her notable net skills, but the penetrating groundstrokes of Wozniacki probably will keep her pinned behind the baseline.  Watching the Dane, one learns that depth can become as effective a weapon as angle construction.

Maria Sharapova - BNP Paribas Open

Safina vs. Sharapova:  On the bright side, the two-time Roland Garros finalist scored her first victory over a top-10 opponent since her back injury, a moment that will have revitalized her confidence barely a month after she contemplated retirement.  On the less bright side, she donated 16 double faults during that match and profited immensely from Stosur’s abject incompetence on even the most routine groundstrokes.  Although her head-to-head with Sharapova stands level at three wins apiece, they have not met on a hard court since Maria’s two comprehensive triumphs in 2005-06.  One can glean little from such distant history, especially because their two most memorable encounters unfolded at Roland Garros, where Safina erased imposing deficits on both occasions to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Surely eager to fasten her own jaws around her compatriot, Sharapova must beware of sinking to the level of her opponent if Dinara struggles again with her serve.  A spasmodic, unpredictable rhythm across the net could spell trouble for the 2006 champion, who has struggled with her own timing since returning from shoulder surgery.  Bedeviled for much of two sets by Medina Garrigues in her opener, Sharapova slipped gratefully into her preferred brand of tennis against Rezai.  More imposing than Safina are the memories of those earlier losses to her, so Maria may find the mental challenge more daunting than any physical test that she confronts on Monday.

Schiavone vs. Peer:  Maneuvered to the edge of the precipice by a relentless Pavlyuchenkova, the Israeli saved multiple match points deep in the third set and later erased break points that would have forced a decisive tiebreak.  This narrative diverged from a few of Peer’s matches early this year, in which she squandered opportunities to deliver the coup de grace before finding herself on the wrong side of a stirring comeback.  Once again dominant in the Middle East, she scored victories over Wickmayer and Kuznetsova that presaged her performance in the California desert, where she reached the quarterfinals in 2007.  Although Peer has not faced Schiavone since the latter’s Roland Garros heroics, she won all three of their hard-court meetings and three of their four tiebreaks.  The fifth seed has looked sharper than expected at a tournament where she never has reached the elite eight, comfortably dismissing a revitalized Cornet.  In this clash between resilient competitors, one expects epic rallies, multiple breaks, and plenty of feisty emotion from both sides of the net.  If Peer can pin Schiavone behind the baseline, she could continue her success against the Italian by neutralizing the latter’s multifaceted forecourt weapons.  Nevertheless, she lacks the offensive artillery to take time away from the Roland Garros champion as she devises her clever combinations.

Wickmayer vs. Cibulkova:  Watching them battle at Stanford last year, we noticed that the nine inches separating them in height paralleled the gulf between their relative ball-striking ability.  With the arguable exception of Cibulkova’s inside-out forehand, the Belgian hammered every shot more vigorously than her diminutive opponent.  Despite the mismatch on that afternoon, the Slovak has won her other two clashes with Wickmayer while feeding her a pair of bagels.  Both women scored impressive upsets in the previous round, of which Cibulkova’s epic win over Zvonareva (justly) garnered more acclaim because of her opponent’s pedigree.  From Wickmayer’s perspective, though, the triumph over US Open nemesis Kanepi may have provided just as substantial an emotional boost.  Dominating the Estonian through the first set and a half in New York, Yanina let the match slip away after a disappointing second-set tiebreak; the collapse poisoned the rest of her 2010 campaign.  This time, Wickmayer rallied from a one-set deficit and watched Kanepi unravel with grim satisfaction.  A quarterfinalist in Miami last year, the Belgian could equal or even surpass that feat here if she can quell the charging Cibulkova, who has maximized her potential under the guidance of Zeljko Krajan.  Who can build upon Sunday’s achievements?

Petrova vs. Peng:  Previously felled by Petrova at her home tournament in Beijing, the Chinese star has enjoyed the brightest season of her career thus far with wins over Kuznetsova, Jankovic, Li, and nearly Radwanska.  After that succession of triumphs, she should approach her former conqueror with ample self-belief.  Erratic early in her clash with American wildcard Christina McHale, Petrova grimaced, carved the air with her racket, and barked at herself even when the tide turned early in the second set.  Such negative body language jarred with her generally crisp performance when she put her racket to its more familiar function, connecting with some startling winners off both groundstrokes against an opponent who played well above her usual level.  Tested but ultimately unscathed in each of her first two matches, Petrova faces an opponent who survived a pair of three-setters herself and also has rallied from a one-set deficit here.  Whereas the Russian clearly holds the edge in power, the Chinese star holds the emotional advantage and rarely signals discomfiture to her opponent.  In order for that dimension to become relevant, however, the match must stay somewhat close.  Otherwise, Petrova will feel little of the pressure that has undermined her potential throughout her career.

Victoria Azarenka - BNP Paribas Open

Radwanska vs. Azarenka:  On the distant battlefield of Court 7, this match between two top-10 talents should surpass its humble setting.  Dominating their head-to-head record after losing their first meeting in 2006, Azarenka holds the keys to victory but often has let them dangle too loosely from her finger in similar situations before.  Despite their high first-serve percentages, neither player wins many free points with her delivery, so one envisions repeated breaks and a series of extended service games.   Faced with a stern test of her fragile patience, Azarenka must maneuver herself into position to unleash the winning blow rather than pulling the trigger with her trademark impetuosity.  On her side of the net, Radwanska will seek to feed the Belarussian a variety of paces, spins, and perhaps heights; in the past, Vika has struggled with slow, high-bouncing groundstrokes.  While the eighth seed clearly has the mightier weapons and greater potential to win majors, the ninth seed has established herself as one of the WTA’s most consistent competitors.  Currently mired in the longest title drought among top-10 players, the Pole must find a way to more regularly solve fallible firecrackers like Azarenka in order to contend for the elite tournaments.  These ultra-slow hard courts offer the best possible surface (other than clay) for the 2010 semifinalist to crack the code.

 

Whereas the women’s draw at Indian Wells yawns open for a host of players to exploit, the men’s draw rests within the vise-like grasp of a tiny elite.  Or so we thought last year until Ljubicic reminded us that anything can happen in a land where vistas reveal themselves as mirages.   Will the desert sands shift again in 2011?  We think not.

The best tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, wins the ATP tournament of Indian Wells. Rafa defeated Andy Murray in the final match.

First quarter:  Like fellow top seed Wozniacki, Nadal should settle into a section littered with compatriots from Almagro and Montanes to Australian Open nemesis Ferrer.  Sharpening his hard-court weapons against clay specialist Juan Monaco, the two-time Indian Wells champion might confront a player who served for the match against him here three years ago.  Renowned for a stunning 2008 triumph over Rafa in an Australian Open semifinal, Tsonga has lost all five of their other meetings.  In fact, the acrobatic Frenchman might fall victim before that round to the fitter, leaner version of Marcos Baghdatis, although the volatile Cypriot has alternated wins over Del Potro and Murray with retirements in Melbourne and Dubai.  Veering wildly between peaks and valleys, Baghdatis ambushed Federer in this tournament last year and fell to Robredo a round later.  Unless he can reprise his three-set upset over Nadal in Cincinnati, the world #1 should have an opportunity to avenge his recent Melbourne defeat.  In a comic juxtaposition between two foes 13 inches apart in height, Ferrer must tame Karlovic’s staccato, record-breaking serve.  The diminutive Spanard then must adjust to the grinding court coverage of Simon and the flamboyant groundstrokes of Almagro, a two-time titlist this season who fell to Ferrer in the Acapulco final two weeks ago.  Tested by that trio of contrasting styles, the world #6 should profit from the slow hard courts of Indian Wells.  But he will find the healthy Rafa a far more imposing challenge than the hobbled warrior who mustered little resistance against him at the Australian Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2007 and 2009 champion

Second quarter:  Just as in Melbourne, Soderling’s possession of the fourth seed proved immaterial in a draw that could pit him against the fifth-seeded Murray.  Aligned against Kohlschreiber in the third round, the bone-crushing Swede will hope to relive the memory of a Rotterdam encounter during which he saved a match point en route to defeating the German for the first time in five meetings.  Soon to suffer a precipitous rankings tumble, defending champion Ljubicic might not survive the revitalized Del Potro in the second round.  And everyone in this section will struggle to solve the conundrum of Alexander Dolgopolov, the only player to defeat Soderling so far in 2011.  Capitalizing upon the momentum from the Melbourne quarterfinals, the Ukrainian scintillated Latin American audiences last month with his loose-limbed grace.  In this section’s lower half lurks Murray, who suffered from post-Melbourne doldrums here last year during a listless loss to Soderling.  Few potential opponents can hand him a credible excuse for an early exit this time, for even a tepid version of the Scot remains far superior on hard courts to the aging Starace, the powerless Robredo, and the stagnant Verdasco.  Wallowing through three consecutive losses before arriving in the desert, the Spaniard has won consecutive matches in only two of his last eleven tournaments.

Semifinalist:  the 2009 runner-up

Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the Pacific Life Open trophy after winning the men's final match by defeating Mardy Fish at the Pacific Life Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 23, 2008 in Indian Wells, California. Djokovic won the match 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.

Third quarter:  Undefeated this season after the longest winning streak of his career, Djokovic will attempt to duplicate his 2008 achievement of coupling the year’s first major with the year’s first Masters 1000 event.  Within striking range of the #2 ranking, the Serb will risk his pristine record against Hopman Cup victim Golubev, who will arrive in Indian Wells buoyed by recent Davis Cup heroics.  While the enigmatic Gulbis could loom a round later, Djokovic should glide to the quarterfinals rather than enduring an encore of last year’s early exit.  Among the other intriguing matches in his vicinity is a projected third-round duel between Troicki and Llodra, who decided the 2010 Davis Cup title.  Elsewhere in this section, the stars and stripes wave above Roddick, Blake, and Isner, only one of whom can reach the fourth round.  Defending 1,600 points this month, last year’s finalist seeks to avert another loss to the player who defeated him in a fifth-set tiebreak at the 2009 US Open.  Unlike the slick surface of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the sluggish courts of Indian Wells should tilt towards Roddick’s favor in a collision between Davis Cup teammates.  Tormented by Gasquet four Wimbledons ago, the American should navigate past either the Frenchman or Melzer to arrange a second Indian Wells quarterfinal against Djokovic.  Although Roddick prevailed on that occasion and in four of their last five encounters, the Serb has reclaimed the swagger that propelled him to victory when they met at the 2008 US Open.

Semifinalist:  the 2008 champion

Fourth quarter:  The only player ever to win three consecutive titles in the California desert, Federer hopes to erase the memories of his last several visits to Indian Wells.  After an opening-match loss to Canas to 2007, the Swiss legend mustered just five games against Mardy Fish in the 2008 semifinals, ate a third-set breadstick against Murray in the 2009 semifinals, and spurned double match point en route to defeat against Baghdatis in the third round last year.  Troubled at two previous hard-court majors by potential second-round opponent Andreev, Federer likely will find himself faced with either the aforementioned Fish or overnight sensation Milos Raonic in the fourth round.  Enjoying a meteoric rise through the rankings, the Canadian prodigy must eagerly anticipate the opportunity test his Ancic-like style against the ATP’s most prestigious names.  Federer will hope to meet Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, since his compatriot typically melts at the sight of the GOAT like snow in the desert sun.  Slightly more likely to derail a third 2011 duel with Djokovic is the seventh-seeded Berdych, however, who saved match point against the Swiss in Miami before snapping his streak of seven consecutive Wimbledon finals.  Surely still nursing a thirst for revenge, Federer overcame the Czech at the Rogers Cup last summer by the slimmest of margins.  How much longer can his agility and competitive resilience continue to weather the next generation’s savage baseline blows?

Semifinalist:  the 2004, 2005, and 2006 champion

 

 

Maria Sharapova - 2011 Australian Open - Day 3

One hundred and ninety-two combatants, twelve days, two champions.  The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments separate the pretenders from the contenders with an efficiency as brutally terse as the dissonance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  We outline the women’s draw in the desert before returning tomorrow to foretell the fates of their ATP peers.

First quarter:  A semifinalist at nine of her last ten tournaments, Wozniacki should cruise through a pair of undemanding skirmishes against a qualifier and then Martinez Sanchez, who reached the quarterfinals here last year but has not translated her distinctive lefty serve-and-volley style into recent successes.  Probably destined to meet Caro in the fourth round is Australian Open quarterfinalist Pennetta, ignominiously thrashed by the Dane in Doha last month and winless in their five previous meetings.  Before that stage, Flavia could run afoul of Alisa Kleybanova, the author of a thrilling upset over Clijsters in the California desert last year.  But the Italian has dominated the Russian as thoroughly as Wozniacki has dominated her, refusing to concede any of the eight sets that they have played.  January sensations Jovanovski and Makarova lurk on the other side of this quarter, hoping to ambush the fallible Azarenka just as they did Pennetta, Ivanovic, and nearly Zvonareva in Australia.  Reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne, Radwanska receded in February and looks unlikely to defend her semifinal points from 2010.  Amidst this section filled with the WTA’s younger generation of stars, however, she will seek to blunt Azarenka’s brash baseline style with all-court artfulness.

Quarterfinal:  Wozniacki vs. Azarenka

Second quarter:  Still one of the sport’s more perplexing enigmas, Li Na followed a scorching Australian campaign with a frigid February during which she slumped winless out of both Persian Gulf tournaments.  An early-round upset victim at Indian Wells last year, the Melbourne runner-up might open against her compatriot Peng in a collision between two players who have showcased some of their best tennis this season.  Elsewhere in her vicinity prowl a pair of mercurial Russians, Kuznetsova and Petrova, who have recorded their most impressive results at unexpected moments.  While Petrova may have receded permanently from the ranks of the contenders, Kuznetsova awakened when she ended Henin’s career at the Australian Open and then surged to the Dubai final.  A finalist at Indian Wells in 2007 and 2008, Sveta shared Li’s untimely fate here in 2011 and thus seems ripe for a resurgence.  In the upper half of this quarter, three imposing but recently stagnant figures join two-time titlist Hantuchova, who won Pattaya City last month and then waged a titanic battle against eventual champion Zvonareva in Doha.  Suffering a tepid spell after her 2010 breakthrough, fourth-seeded Stosur could encounter either the surging Slovak or Safina in the third round; the Russian has struggled to win matches (and sometimes games) over the last several months but may have gained a few shreds of confidence with a doubles title in Kuala Lumpur.  Aligned to meet Rezai in the third round, Sharapova has mightier weapons and a sturdier mind than anyone whom she could face until the quarterfinals, although the desert winds may wreak havoc with her towering toss.

Quarterfinal:  Sharapova vs. Kuznetsova

Vera Zvonareva - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Third quarter:  Cradled comfortably in Zvonareva’s gentle hands, this benign section lies at the mercy of the world #3.  Winning the most significant title of her career at Indian Wells in 2009, Vera will find her outstanding movement and transition game rewarded on its tortoise-slow courts.  Several of her potential opponents can surpass Zvonareva in either power (Kanepi, Pavlyuchenkova) or consistency (Pironkova, Peer), yet few can equal her in both categories simultaneously.  Nevertheless, Pavlyuchenkova will bring momentum from defending her Monterrey title last week, while Peer once again rose to the occasion in the hostile territory of Dubai.  Before testing their skills against Zvonareva, the Russian or the Israeli first must defuse the inflammable Schiavone, dormant while losing five of seven matches since her epic duel with Kuznetsova in Melbourne.  Peer has won all three of her hard-court meetings with the Italian, which have featured four tiebreaks in seven sets.  Triumphant over Schiavone in Miami last year, meanwhile, Pavlyuchenkova possesses the first-strike power and the combative mentality to conquer her again.  Yet she exited the California desert swiftly in 2010, perhaps hampered by fatigue from her exploits in Monterrey.  If Schiavone quells her opportunistic opposition, she will face the daunting prospect of overcoming her 0-10 record against Zvonareva, who also has won their last ten sets.  Perfect against Peer through five meetings, Vera never has lost to Pavlyuchenkova either.  Nor has she ever defeated her.  Does a first meeting between these two Russians await?

Quarterfinal:  Pavlyuchenkova vs. Zvonareva

Fourth quarter:  Amidst the Serbs and Germans who riddle this section, one almost might not notice the presence of the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion.  To be sure, one scarcely noticed Clijsters at the 2010 edition of this event, when she staggered to a third-round defeat against Kleybanova after squandering a double-break lead in the third set.  Less profligate and unpredictable as she progresses deeper into her comeback, Kim will face a similar but less obdurate obstacle in the same round this year.  The straightforward slugger Jarmila Groth should prepare Clijsters for sterner competition in the following round, where Melbourne quarterfinalist Petkovic could confront her if the German can solve Bartoli.  Situated on the other side of this section is even more compelling drama, which could start in the opening round with a tantalizing clash between the ironclad warrior Kimiko Date-Krumm and the returning Shvedova.  After a hard-earned victory in that contest, its winner will set her sights upon 2008 champion Ivanovic, a finalist here two years ago and a meek second-round loser last year.  Recuperating from an abdominal injury, the former #1 hopes to reclaim her momentum from the end of 2010 after an inauspicious beginning to 2011.  Ana could reprise her bitter rivalry with compatriot and defending champion Jankovic in the fourth round, but Czech lefty Kvitova could spell trouble for both Serbs.  Already capturing two titles during the season’s first two months, the Wimbledon semifinalist will enter the tournament with greater confidence than Ivanovic and perhaps greater appetite than Jankovic.  Conquered by Clijsters at the US Open, she avenged that setback in the Paris Indoors final a month ago.  Dominant against the Serbs in the past, the Belgian could find the Czech a more formidable threat than either of her more heralded rivals in this section.

Quarterfinal:  Kvitova vs. Clijsters

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