09 March, 2012

Life In The Desert

Every fall there's a fair bit of hand-wringing about the tennis offseason, or lack thereof.  That mythical period between early December and New Year's Eve where the sport presumably disappears.  Given the fact that most of the Western World is engrossed in (not to mention engorged during) the winter holidays, I guess the question is "If the world is too busy to notice that a tournament isn't happening, was there an offseason after all?"

Short answer: No.

To the players, those few weeks are largely an extended weekend or so of relaxation and then a few weeks of training to prep for the Australian summer circuit.  I would counter that the offseason, perhaps more accurately penned as "off-season," kicks off the day after the players leave Melbourne.  Yes, there are Davis and Fed Cup ties, the appearance fee-rich tournaments on the Arabian peninsula, the remnants (ruins?) of the Euro winter indoor circuit, Latin America's "Golden Swing" and even a bit of home cooking for the Americans; but in a sport that's truly a 24/7/365 enterprise, the post-Australian swing is more of a swoon.  Then there's Indian Wells.

The reason you see all those shots of the top tennis players in the world playing pickup soccer (football/futbol) games during Indian Wells is it's basically their homecoming game.  For the men, it's the first time all the top players have been together since Melbourne.  For everyone, fans included, it is the beginning of the meat of the pro tennis season, the stretch between Indian Wells and the US Open when everything matters.  With apologies to Acapulco and Rotterdam, it all starts now.

We're a little late to the party to bother with a draw preview, so here are the five storylines to watch:

1. Is Roger Federer's Indian Summer for real?

Fed fans are in a veritable lather over their man's play in recent months.  Though the Swiss master is on the down side of 30, he's playing great ball right now.  Yes, Rafael Nadal tagged him in Melbourne and yes, he was unexpectedly pegged by Big Johnny Isner in Davis Cup.  OK, he's also 33-2 since last year's US Open.  So, is this a real Roger renaissance or has he taken advantage of the other top players absences (physical or otherwise) from the tour?  We can't answer that for real today, but the traditionally slow hardcourts and rejuvenated fields of Indian Wells should help us get there.

2. Kvitova or Azarenka or Both?

For the first time since Justine Henin, it looks as if the WTA Tour (note I didn't say Grand Slams) are going to have a legitimate female champion.  Petra Kvitova emerged from the lawns of Wimbledon with the Venus Dish and backed it up with a Tour Championships victory.  Then suddenly, Victoria Azarenka emerged.  The longtime pro finally put it all together, the mental piece being last, to win her first major in Melbourne.  Will one of these players emerge from Indian Wells even more clearly ahead of the others?  My opinion: Azarenka whose game is less mercurial than Kvitova's will shine here, while the Czech fares better on the faster courts of Miami.

3. Wherefore Art Thou, Rafael?

Just when many observers were saying "This kid has to be punchdrunk by now, taking body blow after body blow from Novak Djokovic," the Man from Mallorca took a loss by split decision (to overuse the analogy) to Djokovic in a stirring Australian Open final.  A loss is a loss, but sometimes, not all is lost with a loss, and that seems to be the case here.  Unlike his rivals, Nadal has not appeared on the circuit since Melbourne.  He likes the conditions and has had success in the desert.  The only question, is he ready to attack the steely Serb and try to reassert his claim to the ATP throne?

4. Will Nole have a Second Moment In Time?

Oh, fine, belabored Whitney reference, but whatever.  Novak Djokovic's 2011 season was one for the ages.  He came within a finger wagging Federer of a likely Grand Slam (Djokovic had bested Rafa twice on clay coming into Paris, mind you), but ultimately came away without tennis' ultimate prize.  With three majors and ten titles in the bag in 2011, he started off 2012 auspiciously, winning the Australian Open, but since then he shrugged off Davis Cup duty and suffered a dispiriting loss to World No. 4 Andy Murray in Dubai.  It's rare that a player back up a three major year with anything approaching those figures the next year.  If you follow my assertion that the Australian Open is more a continuation of the prior season than the start of a new one (look at recent results before you disagree), you have to question what mark Djokovic will make on the 2012 season.  Indian Wells is a big tournament, how will his defense fare?

5. Can A North American Break Through?

2011 was a breakthrough year for Canadian Milos Raonic, but his meteoric rise stalled.  Yes, there was the hip injury at Wimbledon, but it was really a third round loss to American Ryan Harrison that took the steam out of the engine.  So far the Big Canuck's 2012 looks a lot like his 2011.  Title in San Jose, final in Memphis.  Can he break ties with last year and play a strong Indian Wells, or has too much early season tennis dulled his edge (and perhaps fitness) again?  Can the aforementioned Harrison continue his strong start to the year?  He seems firmly entrenched Top 100 player, but he's defending fourth round points in the desert.  He needs a big result (at least compared to his No. 72 ranking) just to stay even this week.  Christina McHale is the lone seeded American woman (No. 32), but her first seed would be Petra Kvitova in the third round.  That would be a massive, but not unfathomable, upset.

To the desert we turn.

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