The first two months of the 2016 tennis year have been rather symmetrical. January was time for the familiar faces to assert themselves in Australia, with the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Serena Williams all reaching the semis or better. Come February, though, these four between them played but one tournament, creating a vacuum for many others to step into the spotlight.
Now comes March, with big and little kids gathering together Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open. Seven topics of interest:
- – The spring training, early season flavor of the BNP Paribas Open makes it a perfect place to inspect the ascending stars. Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Taylor Fritz all made big news in February – and each is worth watching closely during Indian Wells.
- – Thiem, winner of two titles last month, has been touted by aficionados for a couple of years. The 22-year-old Austrian is showing a brand of physicality and emotional discipline quite pleasing for a man also graced with a forceful one-handed backhand.
- – Kyrgios, at a slight crossroads on the emotional front, broke through at Rotterdam to earn his first ATP World Tour singles title and followed that up with a semifinal effort at Dubai. Count on plenty of energy and engagement – certainly from spectators – when he shows up in the desert.
- – On October 5, Taylor Fritz was ranked 694. He’s now cracked the top 100, a warp speed sprint up highlighted by recent runs to the finals of Memphis and the quarters in Acapulco. Is he the next great American? Fritz’s nation of origin is far less important to me than watching him compete, build off his superb forehand and serve, and continue to seek ways to improve.
2-Wondering About the Women
- – Serena Williams. Simona Halep. Maria Sharapova. Garbine Muguruza. Petra Kvitova. Angelique Kerber. Since the Australian Open, these six WTA top tenners have collectively played a meager 18 matches, winning a mere seven (four by Muguruza). Serena and Sharapova haven’t played one (and of course, Sharapova’s recent failed drug test makes her schedule uncertain). Injuries, sickness, burn out – so be it. Opportunity now knocks.
- – Aussie first round exit at the hands of compatriot Fernando Verdasco, followed by frustrating South American clay swing. Granted, his loss in the semis of Buenos Aires came in a third-set tiebreaker loss to the soaring Thiem. But a week later in Rio, Nadal dropped another three-setter, this time to Pablo Cuevas. Additional red flag: Thiem and Cuevas both have one-handed backhands, a shot Nadal used to eat for breakfast on clay. As Nadal points towards Paris, let’s hope at Indian Wells he can show much of the magic that’s helped him win the title there three times.
- – Back at Indian Wells for the first time in 15 years. Was ranked seven at the end of ’15, her first top ten finish since ’10. In her own tranquil way, Venus figures to smoothly handle the fishbowl-like environment surrounding her return to the place of one of the most controversial moments in tennis history. The tennis is more uncertain: slow hardcourts, warm weather.
5-Juan Martin Del Potro
- – Gentle giant once again on the comeback trail. As recently as February 15, was ranked 1,042. Fine run to the semis at Delray Beach brought him up to 418. Missed Indian Wells the last two years – but on his last appearance back in ’13, made it all the way to the finals before losing to Nadal in a tight three-setter. Biggest question: Will he be able to strike his two-handed backhand with frequency and authority?
6-American Hopefuls: Big Serves, Big Forehands – Big Results?
- – On the men’s side, John Isner and Sam Querrey went in opposite directions last month. Off the heels of a fine run to the round of 16 at the Australian Open, Isner took a new step, skipping familiar events in Memphis and Delray Beach in pursuit of glory on the clay in South America. Alas, Isner lost in the first round of the two events he played, going down in third set tiebreakers to 79th-ranked Dusan Lajovic in Buenos Aires and 71st-ranked Guido Pella in Rio (Pella went on to reach the finals). Isner hopes now to show off all the form and improved skills that made him a runner-up at Indian Wells four years ago (beating Djokovic in the semis).
- – Querrey has looked a little mopey the last two years, his ranking meandering from 46 at the end of ’13 to 35 in ’14 and 59 at the end of 2015. Most notably, as of February he hadn’t won a singles title in nearly four years. Now working with long-time coach Craig Boynton, Querrey showed a new spring in his step last month, beginning with a run to the semis in Memphis, where he lost to eventual champ Kei Nishikori. Next came the end of his title drought with a win at Delray Beach, an effort highlighted by a tight 7-5, 7-5 win over Del Potro. That was followed in Acapulco by another semi, where in the quarters, Querrey earned a payback win over Nishikori. The question now: Is Querrey tired or razor-sharp for Indian Wells?
- – Is Sloane Stephens currently finding her path or is she destined for a roller-coaster career? A pre-Australian Open title run in Brisbane gave hopes that she’d show more of the form that took her to the semis in Melbourne back in ’13. Then came a first round exit in the year’s first major. But Stephens rebounded, earning career title number two at Acapulco.
- – Madison Keys made a big splash a year ago when she made it to the semis at the Australian Open. Her 2016, though, has been less successful, Keys’ loss in the round of 16 Down Under marred by a leg injury; and, alas, not playing a single match in February. Still, a healthy Keys is a dangerous player – not just among the top 30, but eventually, one holding up Grand Slam trophies. Likeable and powerful, it will be fascinating to see if Keys has enough physical and mental strength for a fine run in the desert.
7-Bryan Brothers: Minor Hiccup or Mid-Life Crisis?
- – In the four events they’ve played in 2016, the world’s best doubles team hasn’t won a title. The last time the Bryans didn’t win a title in the first two months of the year came back in 2008. Has switching receiving sides been as helpful as desired? Have the other teams merely risen to the occasion, the result of the high bar set by Mike and Bob? Or is this just a mini-aberration, with a course correction soon to follow on native grounds? Either way, will be fun to see how the Bryans persevere. Added spice: Top players often enter the doubles at Indian Wells, a chance for Bob and Mike to make a statement.