As spring quickly approaches, the tennis scene returns to the American outdoor hard courts in the year’s first Master Series event on the men’s side and the first premier event on the women’s side.
Dubbed the "March Madness" of tennis, Indian Wells (Palm Springs, Calif.) and Miami tournaments brings the world’s best on a smaller stage, battling on the hard courts one last time before the European clay season takes over in April.
From Victoria Azarenka’s winning streak last year and Novak Djokovic’s dominating role in 2011, March can bring out the best in players, and also the worst—such as Andy Murray and his Indian Wells early round sagas, and Maria Sharapova’s Miami kryptonite (four-time finalist, never a titlist).
The newest American sensation comes home after a thrilling start to 2013, where her first Grand Slam semifinal appearance earned her a ranking inside the top 20.
Though Stephens has struggled in February, going 1-2 in Doha and Dubai, look for her to get back on track in California having the home-crowd advantage. Stephens’ game is suited for hard courts, as we saw in Melbourne, and has a chance of reaching the later rounds at a premier event for the first time.
These hard-court home tournaments are just what Stephens needs to prove Australia was no fluke.
Besides Nadal and David Ferrer, the other top player missing from Dubai this week is Andy Murray, who knows he needs better results at Indian Wells (falling in the early rounds in the last two years).
Murray has had previous success in both tournaments, winning Miami in 2009, and reaching the finals at Indian Wells in 2009 and last year in Miami. Actually, Murray’s best Masters events have been in North America, winning a pair of titles in Canada and Cincinnati as well. Murray’s game is dominant on the fast American hard courts, as we saw in last year’s U.S. Open final.
Murray will put an end to his Indian Wells woes this year and will reach the later rounds.
It’s a shame these two couldn’t battle twice in March, (since Serena and sister Venus refuse to return to Palm Springs), but they will hopefully meet in Miami again.
Serena will want her revenge after her loss to Azarenaka at the 2009 Miami championship and her loss a couple of weeks ago in Doha.
Though at the beginning of the year, Azarenka had a 1-11 head-to-head record against Serena, it seems the 23-year-old is slowly pulling out wins from the American with her aggressive play. This is good news for women’s tennis, which desperately needs a rivalry.
Azarenka has an Indian Wells title to defend, and with Serena out of the picture, Azarenka should nab title No. 3 of 2013. But we’ll all be looking at how well Azarenka fares at the end of the month in Serena’s town.
Like the beginning of the season, the American men are still a question mark coming into March.
After a month of indoor play in San Jose and Memphis, Jack Sock, the Nebraska native came onto the radar, reaching his first ATP quarterfinal in Tennessee, defeating No. 14 Milos Raonic in the opening round. Look for him to gain some ground in March, taking advantage of his best surface before it switches to red clay.
As for John Isner, 2013 hasn’t been so kind, as a knee injury forced him out of the Australian Open. His mediocre play in San Jose and Memphis won’t help the fact that he has a boatload of points to defend in California, where he reached the final, losing to Roger Federer last year. It’s hard to see Isner match his 2012 play, but, the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships (where he is competing now) should boost his confidence.
However, the biggest question mark will be Mardy Fish as he returns to tennis at Indian Wells (announced via Twitter).
Is 2013 starting to look vaguely familiar? It is to Novak Djokovic.
Having not lost a match yet this season, Djokovic is hoping to go for the sweep in March, and along with Roger Federer, the two are the only active players to do so. So far in Dubai, Djokovic has been in cruise control having not dropped a set.
Like Murray, Djokovic shines during "March Madness" and broke into the top 10 for the first time in 2007 after his final appearance in California and winning Miami. He is twice a champion at Indian Wells and a three-time champion in Miami, including the last two years.
However, unlike his 2011 season, Djokovic's competition is more capable of pulling off the upset; look for Djokovic to win one Masters Series event and reach the final in the other.