March has arrived, signalling the start of the tennis season's first ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Mandatory tournament: The 2014 BNP Paribas Open from Indian Wells, Calif.
World No. 1 Rafael Nadal enters this tournament as the top seed and the defending men's singles champion. But the 13-time Grand Slam champion will be pushed to the limit on the desert hard courts as he looks to outlast archrival Novak Djokovic and a loaded field of men's contenders that will include recent major winners Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy Murray and Roger Federer.
Djokovic discussed the increasing parity in the men's game ahead of this week's tournament, via ATPWorldTour.com's Josh Meiseles:
What Stan did in the Australian Open shows that there are other players than the top four that are able to win. It’s good for the sport.
Roger played a great tournament in Dubai. He’s one of the best players in the history of the game and you can never count him out. He always plays really well and you have t be on top of your game to win against him regardless of which surface you play on. It’s Roger Federer across the net.
Of course Rafa is there too and you have young guys like Dimitrov and Raonic and Janowicz. It’s a very interesting time for men's tennis. It’s just the beginning of the season so it’s still very early in the season to predict who will finish No. 1 but there is a bigger group of guys, not just the four of us.
On the women's side, things look to be wide open as well with world No. 1 Serena Williams sitting out this event yet again, per the tournament's official website: "After careful consideration, I will not return to the Indian Wells BNP Paribas Open this year. I send my best wishes to everyone involved with the tournament."
Despite not playing, Williams will continue to enjoy the top ranking.
The 17-time major champion won the tournament for a second time in 2001, but hasn't been back since after she and her sister Venus were booed relentlessly. The controversy was brought on by Venus withdrawing from a semifinal matchup against Serena because of tendinitis.
As a result, reigning Australian Open champion and world No. 2 Li Na will be the No. 1 seed in the women's draw. Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are the other top female contenders.
Let's take a look at the top seeds and the outlook for both the men's and women's singles draw.
|2014 BNP Paribas Open Top Seeds - Singles|
|Seed||Men's Draw||Women's Draw|
|1||Rafael Nadal||Li Na|
|2||Novak Djokovic||Agnieszka Radwanska|
|3||Stanislas Wawrinka||Victoria Azarenka|
|4||Tomas Berdych||Maria Sharapova|
|5||Andy Murray||Angelique Kerber|
|6||Juan Martin Del Potro||Simona Halep|
|7||Roger Federer||Jelena Jankovic|
|8||Richard Gasquet||Petra Kvitova|
|9||Jo-Wilfried Tsonga||Sara Errani|
|10||Milos Raonic||Caroline Wozniacki|
|11||Tommy Haas||Ana Ivanovic|
|12||John Isner||Dominika Cibulkova|
|13||Fabio Fognini||Roberta Vinci|
|14||Mikhail Youzhny||Carla Suarez Navarro|
|15||Grigor Dimitrov||Sabine Lisicki|
|16||Tommy Robredo||Samantha Stosur|
|17||Kevin Anderson||Sloane Stephens|
|18||Jerzy Janowicz||Eugenie Bouchard|
|19||Kei Nishikori||Kirsten Flipkens|
|20||Ernests Gulbis||Flavia Pennetta|
|21||Gilles Simon||Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova|
|22||Philipp Kohlschreiber||Alize Cornet|
|23||Gael Monfils||Ekaterina Makarova|
|24||Marin Cilic||Kaia Kanepi|
|25||Vasek Pospisil||Sorana Cirstea|
|26||Florian Mayer||Lucie Safarova|
|27||Dmitry Tursunov||Svetlana Kuznetsova|
|28||Alexandr Dolgopolov||Klara Zakopalova|
|29||Andreas Seppi||Daniela Hantuchova|
|30||Fernando Verdasco||Elena Vesnina|
|31||Ivan Dodig||Magdalena Rybarikova|
|32||Pablo Andujar||Garbine Muguruza|
Click here to view complete singles draws via BNPParibasOpen.com.
The women's draw features no clear-cut favorite with Li struggling in her most recent tournament since winning the Australian Open in January.
Li, Radwanska, Azarenka and Sharapova are the favorites but none of them has stood out of late. From those four, Azarenka and Sharapova are the popular picks. They have each won here in the past, with Sharapova winning it most recently in 2013.
If you're looking for dark horses, keep an eye out for Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Wozniacki has reached the final in three of the past four years, winning here in 2011. Jankovic won it all the year before while Kuznetsova was a runner-up in consecutive years back in 2007-08.
Nadal and Djokovic will be the favorites to survive the men's draw, but are no lock to meet in the tournament final. Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times points out how Nadal has a difficult hurdle to clear even in his first match, and he along with Murray have arduous paths to the final:
Wawrinka and Federer project to make deep runs of their own but will have to meet in the quarterfinals to decide who moves forward from there. The door is especially open for Tomas Berdych in the bottom half of the draw after world No. 4 David Ferrer withdrew.
Berdych will be seeded fourth and thus in a separate bracket from Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka.
For the two favorites, avoiding Swiss opposition could be the key for success as each of Nadal and Djokovic's combined three losses have come to either Wawrinka or Federer. Wawrinka has played just one Davis Cup match since winning the Australian Open and should be a bit rusty through the early rounds.
But Wawrinka has never won in Indian Wells while Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win nine of the past 10 titles.
Men's Champion: Novak Djokovic
Three-time BNP Paribas Open champion Nadal enters this tournament as the man to beat. But Novak Djokovic is a two-time winner himself and is flying under the radar following disappointing losses in Australia and Dubai.
Djokovic has taken each of his past two meetings with Nadal going back to 2013, winning on the hard courts in Beijing (China Open) and London (ATP World Tour Finals). Therefore, if the two were to meet in the final, Djokovic would have the psychological edge and a 13-7 hard-court head-to-head advantage.
Not to mention Nadal is still working his way back from a painful back injury suffered in Australia. He was successful in his return on the clay courts in Rio de Janeiro, but will be up against a far more difficult task on a more demanding surface against elite competition in Indian Wells.
Women's Champion: Victoria Azarenka
Despite falling to No. 4 in the WTA rankings, Victoria Azarenka is poised to win her first title of 2014 in Indian Wells. With Serena Williams set out again, the 2012 tournament champion will have an excellent shot to showcase her hard-court prowess en route to her eighth Premier Mandatory triumph.
Azarenka has had more than a month to recover from a foot injury and prepare for this tournament since bowing out of the season's first Grand Slam Down Under.
The extra rest, combined with the wide-open draw and the fact Azarenka has had success here in the past makes the 24-year-old Belarusian a safe pick to prevail in the desert.
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