Under cloudless desert skies at a renovated and improved Indian Wells Tennis Garden, the men’s top male players have been readying themselves for their first confrontation since the Australian Open.
Andy Murray, shrugging off shingles, recovered in time to extend his lead at the top of the ATP ranking by winning Dubai. It put down a marker for the Scot because none of his immediate rivals have managed to do as well since Melbourne.
Roger Federer lost early in Dubai; Novak Djokovic went down to Nick Kyrgios 7-6, 7-5 at Acapulco while Sam Querrey pulled an upset by outserving Rafa Nadal in the final. Meanwhile, at Delray Beach, Juan Martin del Potro played his first event of the year but couldn’t get past Milos Raonic in the semi-final. Sadly, Raonic, another of Murray’s biggest rivals, could not play the final because of a hamstring problem and so allowed Jack Sock to take the title.
That, briefly, is where we stand. But before we take a closer look, it is interesting to revert back to the unforgettable final on Rod Laver Arena which saw Federer claim the 18th Grand Slam singles title of his career from the unpromising position of 1-3 down in the fifth set against Nadal.
Given that Federer had just been off court to have a tweaked leg muscle look at, the situation for the Swiss seemed close to hopeless. Yet it was then that a couple of factors Roger had been discussing with his coach, Ivan Ljubicic, came into play.
The first was psychological. Ljubicic, the former world No 3 who joined Federer in January last year after working with Raonic, had been impressing on Roger that it was possible for him to beat Nadal over five sets. Previously Federer had gone into matches against his great rival with a mindset that required him to win quickly. I understand Ljubicic took a different view, insisting that he could go the distance and win in five.
The second was technical. Ljubicic and Roger’s long time coach Severin Luthi had been noticing, after viewing tapes of his matches in 2016, that when Federer made mistakes on his backhand, it was mostly into the net. The new instruction was: If you’re going to miss on the backhand, miss long.
Both proved to be critical pieces of advice. At 1-3 down in the fifth, Federer still believed. And, not for the first time in this classic battle, he came up with sweeping, unreturnable cross court backhand winners, giving the ball air with top spin and finding the apex of the Spanish left hander’s forehand corner. They turned out to be match winners. Nadal made a couple of forehand errors and suddenly the match had turned inside out with Federer leading 4-3. He never looked back.
Federer didn’t have much left to prove when he arrived in Melbourne. He certainly doesn’t have anything to prove now. He has shown himself capable of defying odds and winning a Slam at the age of 35 and now critics will be very wary of saying that he cannot win another – with Wimbledon the obvious candidate for further glory.
However, more immediately, some questions remain to be answered here at the BNP Paribas Open. Strangely, the biggest question hangs over Murray. Along with Monte Carlo, Indian Wells is the only ATP 1000 event he has never won. In fact, a solitary appearance in the final in 2009, when he lost in a gale to Nadal, is his best effort in the Californian desert. He has just never felt comfortable with the playing conditions.
Now, returning as world No 1, can he change that? Having lost here and in Miami in the third round last year – partially as a result of being distracted with fatherhood -- Andy has a big opportunity to collect extra ranking points and extend his lead over Djokovic.
And what about Novak? The report card would say: Improvement on the second half of last year but still something missing. Has the relentless business of winning – he has been either No 1 or No 2 in the world since 2011 – started to take its toll physically? Mentally, there is no question that the razor sharp focus has dulled. The way he performs here and in Miami, where he is defending both titles, will answer a lot of questions.
The battle for the spoils is going to be intense in the bottom quarter of the draw where Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are all clustered – not to mention del Potro and Nick Kyrgios. It should be fun!
At the other end of the spectrum, American tennis will be watching intently to see which of their young hopefuls creates the biggest impression. Most observers point to Reilly Opelka, Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz as the most talented members of a large and very promising bunch.
But for Jose Higueras, the long time USTA coach and Spanish No 1, talent alone won’t get the job done. “It’s all about desire,” he told me. “How much do they really want it; how hard are they prepared to work. I think a lot of them do and there are some outside the top three we have mentioned who could surprise us and burst through. We certainly have a good group to work with.”
Frances Tiafoe has drawn a qualifier and, if he wins will play the veteran Spanish southpaw Feliciano Lopez. Murray should be awaiting the winner.
Taylor Fritz goes up against the talented and moody Frenchman Benoit Paire for the privilege of playing No 6 seed Marin Cilic in the second round while Reilly Opelka will pit his 6ft 11” frame, with serve attached, against the Argentine veteran Juan Monaco. That should prove just the sort of test Opelka needs.
The forecast says it is going to get hot. The competition should match the desert sun.