Indian Wells tennis
Tim Clement brings you his first ATP Masters preview of the new season and fancies Rafael Nadal to shine again in Indian Wells...
By Tim Clement - Twitter: @SkyTimClement. Last Updated: 07/03/14 10:09am
Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Pablo Andujar during the ATP Rio Open 2014
The season's first ATP Masters event begins with a mood of change in the air as the world number one Rafael Nadal bids to defend his Indian Wells title.
Anarchy has reigned on the men's tour so far in 2014, with Novak Djokovic dethroned in Australia and Dubai and Andy Murray still battling to get back to his best. Former leader Roger Federer and his supposed heir Grigor Dimitrov are heading the uprising.
Nadal also, of course, suffered the most surprising of defeats at Melbourne Park as Stanislas Wawrinka broke from the pack to claim his maiden major triumph.
While the Spaniard's back problem means that result must be largely discounted from the form guide, Wawrinka was able to take advantage having produced the best tennis Down Under, seeing off Djokovic en route.
It will be intriguing to see he copes in his first event back since such a breakthrough moment.
A lop-sided draw makes it all the more difficult to predict a winner, with Nadal and Murray handed the toughest of routes, while Djokovic is the main benefactor with his half lacking another player with a Masters title since 2009.
A specially-designed Plexipave IW surface has been in use at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for 15 years now, with the warm, dry desert conditions in mind. The surface is among the slowest of hardcourts on tour, while it also provides a relatively high bounce, meaning ideal conditions from those more comfortable battling from the baseline. It recently replaced clay at the Mexico Open where, Grigor Dimitrov claimed the title last week, beating Murray in the semi-finals.
The odd cloud is about as adverse as the weather conditions get in Indian Wells, with neither rain nor wind expected to cause any trouble. Temperatures are forecast to be around the high 20s throughout the tournament, relatively mild compared to the blistering heat encountered in Melbourne just over a month ago.
Indian Wells: Temperatures are forecast to be around the high 20s
Rafael Nadal really announced himself back to the tour after his seven-month lay-off, following up his gradually-improving results on clay by claiming his third title here. The Spaniard resumed his dominance over Federer with a straight-sets quarter-final victory before seeing off Tomas Berdych in a similar fashion.
The final saw him end Juan Martin del Potro's quest for a first 1000-level triumph in a gripping finale. Del Potro had produced some of his best tennis and took the first set 6-4 but Nadal fought back to take the next two 6-3 6-4, eventually hitting the deck as emotions understandably took their toll.
The contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Novak Djokovic: Favourable draw
The Serbian is considered favourite thanks to a favourable draw and a general reputation as the game's leading force on hard courts over the last few years.
However, he headed to California having failed to make a final in the season so far - the first time that's happened since 2006 - raising questions over replacing coach Marian Vajda, under whom he has won all his titles, with Boris Becker.
Djokovic, who previously triumphed here in 2008 and 2011, could not have been handed a better draw with Del Potro, who has been struggling with a left wrist problem since the Australian Open, the highest-ranked player in his quarter, while Berdych (trails head-to-head 2-15) leads the other quarter in their half in the absence of the injured David Ferrer.
Indian Wells has provided Nadal with his best hard-court results, with the slower surface certainly aiding his three triumphs. However, it looks like he'll have to do it the hard way this year, with Murray, Federer and Djokovic all potentially standing in his way.
A quarter-final clash with Murray would, quite remarkably, represent their first meeting since 2011, but Nadal (leads H2H 13-5) would certainly start as favourite, while I need not elaborate on his dominance over Federer. A see-saw rivalry with Djokovic currently hangs in the balance, with Nadal reigning for the majority of 2013 before Djokovic gained a measure of revenge with victories in Beijing and London.
That final loss to Wawrinka at the Australian Open somewhat disguises the fact that Nadal is very much the man to beat on tour right now, with 10 titles over the last 12 months, including Doha and Rio this year.
Much of Federer's place at third on this list comes down to his recent triumph in Dubai, where he ousted Djokovic before beating Berdych in the final.
Having only claimed the Halle title since August 2012, Federer showed signs of reproducing his best tennis in Melbourne before running into Nadal in the semis. Having beaten Murray and Djokovic in 2014, you sense Federer has what it takes to beat all but his arch nemesis on hardcourts right now but the fact remains, Nadal is likely to be waiting in the semis and the slower courts will only further favour the world number one.
The Wimbledon champion arrives in California looking to prove he can produce his best tennis again after posting modest results since returning from back surgery. He insisted he felt 100 per cent for the first time again in Acapulco last week but still went down to Dimitrov in the semis, meaning he remains without a title since his historic SW19 triumph.
A solitary final appearance here in 2009 hardly suggests it is the place for his year to take off, with his training base in Miami a far more likely launchpad, while he could face an unprecedented task of beating Nadal, Federer and Djokovic in order to be crowned champion.
Tomas Berdych: Won in Rotterdam
After landing his first title in over a year in Rotterdam, Berdych resumed his role as perennial bridesmaid by letting a set-and-a-break lead slip against Federer in Dubai.
The powerful Czech is arguably playing the best tennis of his career right now and I wouldn't be surprised if he managed to oust Djokovic in a semi-final meeting, having ended an 11-match losing streak against the Serb in Rome last year, but putting together back-to-back victories over the very best has always been a bridge too far for the world number six.
It is pretty much a guessing game trying to work out how Wawrinka will cope with arriving at his first event as a Grand Slam champion, but I'd suggest it would be a big ask for him to triumph here.
The world number three has never won a Masters event and is not exactly one for the spotlight, so the added attention is unlikely to enhance his chances. A quarter-final clash with compatriot Federer would certainly be interesting, if simply to wreak havoc with the loyalties of Swiss fans, but I would not be surprised if he suffers an early exit here, especially with the slower conditions hampering the aggressive approach which served him so well Down Under.
Grigor Dimitrov: Best of the rest
Some might be surprised by the omission of Del Potro from the main contenders list but the state of his left wrist is far too much of a concern, with odds of 28/1 still offering no appeal. Surgery seems inevitable given a 20-day break last month could not sort it and opponents know targeting his backhand is a pretty fullproof plan right now. Grigor Dimitrov is the player who really interests me, having triumphed on the same surface last week in Mexico. That win represented his second title in seven events but his performances in Australia impressed me just as much, pushing Nadal hard in his first major quarter-final appearance. A gritty resilience, which will be key here, has been added to his flashy strokes and the draw, whilst tougher than one would like in the early stages, has been favourable. A third 2014 meeting with Ernests Gulbis awaits in the third round and Dimitrov should have the mental edge having won in two hours 40 minutes in Dubai, while Berdych is certainly an opposable top seed in the quarter. Djokovic obviously offers a considerable semi-final challenge but, having beaten the Serb last year, I sense there is no better time for him to face the out-of-sorts world number two.
I've made my liking for Dimitrov clear enough above and I think the 40/1 is generous given he's picked up the sixth-most ranking points in 2014, more than Murray and Djokovic. The 22-year-old is now knocking on the door of the top 10 after climbing to 16th in the world and playing some exceptional tennis. However, my pick from the other half has to be Rafael Nadal and while the 'Baby Fed' nickname is annoying it serves as a reminder to how difficult it will be for Dimitrov in such a match up, with the one-handed backhand so vulnerable to the Spaniard's high-kicking top spin. Expect Nadal to restore order by reasserting himself as the leading force in the men's game but do not write off upsets elsewhere.